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