Do Any Critics of "Marxism" on the Right Actually Know What it Is?Roundup
tags: conservatism, Marxism, political economy, Political theory
Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.
Karl Marx deserves a better caliber of critics. I’ve thought that many times in the last few years, but perhaps never more so than in March when I saw the conservative James Lindsay post a picture of himself pretending to pee on Marx’s grave in London.
I couldn’t help but notice the lack of any actual stream of urine in the picture. In a way, that made it a perfect metaphor for the Right’s approach to their greatest intellectual adversary. They’re making a show of desecrating his grave. But they know too little about his ideas to even make contact with the target of their critique.
Lindsay isn’t some obscure right-winger. He’s a globally prominent figure. He testifies before state legislatures explaining why they should ban “critical race theory,” which he sees as Marxism in disguise. His book, Race Marxism, was a bestseller.
So was Mark Levin’s book, American Marxism. Levin was never quite as popular as his colleagues Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but his talk radio show has blared out from hundreds of AM stations around the United States for many years. Originally, I was slated to cowrite a review of American Marxism with Matt McManus, but after many attempts to get through it, I ended up admitting defeat and letting Matt write it by himself. The book feels like the transcript of an endless, breathless, incoherent rant. I’d be surprised if Levin even cracked open Marx’s magnum opus, Capital.
Right when I was trying and failing to ingest Levin’s book, I did a public debate with one of conservative media’s most omnipresent figures: Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. At one point, Charlie asked me what I thought about Karl Marx. I responded that while I didn’t think Marx was right about everything, he was right about a lot of important subjects — in particular, his theory of history.
Charlie seized on that to say Marx’s theory of history was “basically Hegel’s” — after all, he said, wasn’t Marx the “president of the Young Hegelians”?
This could hardly be more wrong. G. W. F. Hegel had an “idealist” theory of history — he saw it as driven by the progressive self-realization of what he called the “World Spirit.” Marx did start out as a Young Hegelian, but this was the name of a philosophical current, not an organization with membership cards and a president! More substantively, Marx — though deeply influenced by Hegel’s methodology — came to reject idealism in favor of a “materialist” theory of history in which the primacy is given to economic factors: the “forces of production” and “relations of production.”
Lindsay, Levin, and Kirk aren’t the only prominent conservatives who insist on prattling on about Marx despite not knowing the ABCs. In Jordan Peterson’s 2019 debate with the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Peterson said that he’d prepared for the debate by rereading the Communist Manifesto for the first time since he was eighteen.
That in itself was an astonishing admission. Here you have someone who wrote mega-best-selling books that contain strenuous denunciations of “Marxism” admitting that he hadn’t read the Communist Manifesto — a short pamphlet that can be consumed in an afternoon — in decades.
But even more striking was how little understanding Peterson seemed to have of what he’d read. He expressed surprise that Marx and Friedrich Engels “admitted” capitalism had spurred more and faster economic development than any previous system — when in fact they devote pages to the observation because it’s a crucial part of their analysis.