Will Marxism Re-unite Classical Liberals and Conservatives?

What is the relationship between classical liberalism, conservativism and Marxism? I’ve been pondering this question today having read a recent Quillette article by Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony (“The Challenge of Marxism”) and in making my way through Roger Scruton’s book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition.

Hazony’s piece offers a description of Neo-marxism, its power and pitfalls and its take-over of institutions in the English-speaking world. He is careful to note that he is not using the term Marxist as an ad hominem smear, but instead to describe a genuine attempt to rewrite the history and re-shape the culture of the West. The fatal flaws of Marxism he describes include:

  • the simplistic assumption “that wherever one discovers a relationship between a more powerful group and a weaker one, that relation will be one of oppressor and oppressed”. This ignores the real state of affairs in which mixed relationships more often are the norm with powerful and weaker groups mutually benefiting one another in civil life. It is possible for the more powerful interest groups to seek to “balance the benefits and the burdens of the existing order so as to avoid actual oppression”.
  • the assumption “that every society is so exploitative that it must be heading toward the overthrow of the dominant class or group”. But if Hazony is right, and weaker groups favour the general preservation of the current order (surely with some reform), then there would be a preference not for the overthrow of current institutions but for an order that seeks to address the challenges of inevitable inequalities, with the help of custom and all with a view to improving, rather than tearing up, the social fabric.
  • the lack of consideration given to what the revolting class would construct once the revolution has been completed. Hazony goes on to suggest that the overthrow of an oppressive class by the revolters can, and indeed will, breed more oppression (assuming that Marx was right about relationships of power being the norm for human existence).

To his credit, Hazony also notes aspects missing in Enlightenment liberalism that Marxism helpfully fills in: it’s awareness of class and the formation of cohesive groups within society (which liberalism ignores because of its obsessive focus on the individual) and its aliveness to abuses of power in liberal Western societies (which liberals erroneously tend to think exist only in totalitarian societies “over there”).

However, on the question of the relationship between the three political philosophies, the article contains two points that stand out for me:

1. Hazony contends that liberalism is a sort of gateway to Marxism, and that there has always been a “dance of liberalism and Marxism”. He shows that the reliance on abstract reason alone fails to define concepts like equality or liberty. Conservative political philosophy would stress that such terms come down to us in particular contextualised forms, shaped through custom and processes of trial and error.

Yet, as Hazony stresses, the Enlightenment project on which liberalism is based, often seeks to dispense with tradition, appealing instead to abstract rational thought as the basis for defining key aspects of the political order. Scruton echoes this point about the revolutionary tendencies inherent to liberalism when he writes that the temperament of the liberal and conservative are diametrically opposed: “Liberals naturally revolt, conservatives naturally obey” (p.55).

But to return to the metaphor at hand, Hazony describes the dance of liberalism and Marxism like this:

1. Liberals declare that henceforth all will be free and equal, emphasizing that reason (not tradition) will determine the content of each individual’s rights.

2. Marxists, exercising reason, point to many genuine instances of unfreedom and inequality in society, decrying them as oppression and demanding new rights.

3. Liberals, embarrassed by the presence of unfreedom and inequality after having declared that all would be free and equal, adopt some of the Marxists’ demands for new rights.

4. Return to #1 above and repeat.

2. Second, and in light of this set of circumstances, Hazony contends that contemporary Anglophone liberals (classical liberals, that is), must decide either between a kind of progressive Marxism (described above) or an alliance with conservatives. This gets at the other key relationship for liberals: their relationship with conservatives.

Simply put, conservatives and liberals need one another. “The relationship”, Scruton writes, “is not one of absolute antagonism but one of symbiosis”.

It would only be intellectually honest to admit that just as certain tendencies within liberalism, if left unchecked, might lead to Marxism, so too do certain habits and dispositions within conservatism, if not challenged, produce fascism.

Just as iron sharpens iron, so do liberals and conservatives challenge one another, and provide checks and balances to the potential excesses of each philosophy. The liberal challenge of universal values helps conservatives stave off the excessive tyranny of the particular. The conservative challenge of particularity and belonging to a home pushes liberals to avoid the excesses of universal imperialism (Hitler, infamously, combined both excesses—a universal empire in servitude to the particular German Volk).

We are beginning to see liberals and conservatives unite on certain social issues, and it will be interesting to see in the days ahead, whether Hazony’s olive branch is taken up.

Image Credit: Fig 1. by University of California

One thought on “Will Marxism Re-unite Classical Liberals and Conservatives?”

  1. While this discussion – both Yoram Hazony’s excellent article and this present comment on it – are centered on the Western experience, it should also acknowledge the effects of both on the Eastern experience. Such a wider analysis would reveal the extent of damage that neo-Marxist propaganda and activism is causing in non-Western countries around the world.

    In the East (whether in India, China, or rest of Asia) countries have a history that is largely based on a continuous practice of ancient traditions and culture. These do not directly relate or correspond to Western conservatism but aspects of it. Yet, the effects of Western political thought and philosophy are compelling and continuous in the 20th century: in China, for example, the Communism that got planted there is an import of the Marxism of German descent that was adapted as seen fit – first by Mao and later by Deng. But while they had, possibly, better resonance in European Czarist Russia it had far less in China. In India, on the other hand, the democracy that took root at independence was a liberal rendering of English classical liberal thought with its custom, ritual, and institutional stewardship of popular vote-led democracy.

    India is especially a victim today of Western liberalism’s extended Marxist progressiveness. Not a day passes when the West’s leading media and academic institutions finds it both reasonable and necessary to comment on the country’s politics, social makeup, economics, etc. More so as the contemporary nationalist government, for the first time, won a comprehensive majority in the lower house of Parliament six years ago. Western “neo-Marxists” liberals, in tandem with their followers within the country, have declared war and wage daily combat in social media, television, and the print media.

    This contemporary neo-Marxist invasion is not the same as the one in the West: it is an alignment of extreme Western liberals (neo-Marxists), Jihadist Islam, and evangelical Christianity. And they are taking aim squarely at the poor Hindus in India and attempting to salami slice them through various “progressive” (and political-populist) ideas, with the ultimate aim of dismantling what is essentially majoritarian Hindu conservative society and polity – the ones that uphold the idea of conservative values, tradition, and custom.

    For those on the right (we are unable to have even a definite description of this large nationalist segment that is vocal today – are they the “right wing”, “conservatives”, or “nationalists”?), this is tantamount to interfering in national and strategic affairs. Whereas the common man never understood what Marxism was ten years ago, this is now a part of daily discourse.

    The reality is, at least as seen by the right, Western classical liberalism has given way to outright and flagrant Marxism and ill-sits with the traditional ethos, values, traditions, and culture of a very ancient land. One of the debates one constantly sees in contemporary India, in fact, is the mis-application of classical liberalism that Nehru imported into the country under the banner of democracy, secularism, and partisan rights.

    The fight today is one of tradition, values, and equal opportunity as seen by the Indian right versus that of “secularism” (a euphemism for minority appeasement and over-weighting rights) under the guise of democracy. The tragedy is that once-conservative or once-classical Western liberal media such as the Economist, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal today see fit to carry on a vicious campaign against India’s political dispensation regardless of their moorings in their countries of origin. Everything is fit to be fought against: politics, economics, society, religion…

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