The following address was delivered to the HL Mencken Club‘s annual meeting in Baltimore, October 22, 2010.
I’m often asked why there is need for an independent or non-aligned Right. Aren’t Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and Rich Lowry covering all our bases? Why should we create a movement on the right when FOX and those middle-aged people marching around at Tea Parties with costume-store wigs, are doing our job? Why give ammunition to the Democrats by showing that our side is divided? We should be pulling together so we can pummel Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid in next month’s referendum on Obamacare.
Engaging this question fully would require more than a ten-page exposition. Indeed there is no way to address it without being in this instance a Hegelian. It was the great German philosopher Hegel who argued that the true definitions of concepts and movements are necessarily genetic. Such definitions can not be dealt with properly, unless we go back to the origin of what is being defined. A tree is not what it first appears to be, but the history of that object, from the time it was a seedling. So too there is no way to understand where we are at the present time without noticing where we were before. The present state of any institution or movement reflects a dialectical process teeming with strife. It is only when, according to Hegel, conflicting forces can be brought together in a permanent synthesis that the inherent contradictions are resolved. Before that point is reached, the dialectic must go on, as something integral to what is being formed.
My intention is not to belabor you with Hegelian concepts. It is rather to bring up the unfinished dialectic of the right, for understanding why we do not belong to the authorized “conservative movement” and why that movement has become an echo of the Left. Allow me then to start with this generalization. In the second half of the 20th century, the other side, from our perspective, won almost everywhere in the West. But the Left that prevailed was not the gerontocracy and garrison socialism associated with Soviet rule. This Left had little to do with occupation armies in baggy pants, with inefficiently distributed goods and services, and with an arsenal of atomic missiles. The Left that triumphed was a truly radical one, and it celebrated its victories in Western countries that were straining to practice more egalitarian forms of democracy.
Whether the American civil rights movement and its later implications for feminists, gays, transvestites, and illegals, the ascent of antifascism and tiers-mondialisme in France, Italy, Spain and the Lowlands, or the morbid preoccupation of Germans with their undemocratic past and troubling Sonderweg, the post-Communist Left has had a constant task. It seeks to right the wrongs of the past, and specifically those wrongs that are blamed on White Christian, Indo-European civilization.
It may be superfluous to go over here the characteristics of this Left, since most of you are aware of what is being described. I might also recommend my book The Strange Death of European Marxism, which shows how the present Left differs from both Marxism in theory and Communism in practice. This movement is conventionally referred to as cultural Marxism, and it is now at war with anything that is not sufficiently radical in the social sphere. It adherents blame bourgeois society for such evils as “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” and the horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich. This post-Marxist Left appeals to the guilty conscience of the West for having held down everyone else and for not having fought with enough determination against “fascism.”
Though in Europe this Left defends Communist regimes and typically plays down the crimes of Stalin’s Russia, it is not primarily interested in socialism. It is interested above all in reconstructing society, in integrating Western nation states into global organizations and in opening Western countries to Third World immigration and to popularizing non-Christian or non-Judeo-Christian religions. For those who may have noticed, the EU has become a major instrument for this desired social experiment in Europe.
Where this Left overlaps Christian theology is in its stress on guilt and the need for atonement. But the Christian attitudes have been recycled into a replacement theology, one that develops a cult of revolutionary saints and victims, and one that produces a liturgical calendar centered on politically correct remembrance. In this replacement theology victimizing groups are expected to exhibit unconditional atonement toward those considered historical victims.
This post-Marxist Left began to supplant Communism as the major leftist ideology in the West before the fall of the Soviet Empire. Already in the 1960s, a youth culture rejecting bourgeois standards of conduct and in close alliance with anti-colonial Third World revolutionaries, had taken root in Europe. Energy began to flow in the large Communist parties in France and Italy away from traditional party cadres toward young radicals. This rising elite were concerned with combating discrimination against women and immigrants and the marginalization of gays more than they were with the nationalization of productive forces. Although the emerging order became more apparent after the violent demonstrations of the soixante-huitards in Paris in May 1968 and the organization of Red Brigades in Germany and Italy, signs of a changing guard were present before.
In a perceptive work, Sognando la rivoluzione: La sinstra italiana e le origini dei sessantottanti, the Milanese political historian Danilo Breschi shows how Communist youth organizations and workers’ strikes fell into the hands of what the old cadre called “decadent bourgeois adolescents.” While those who showed up for strikes in the 1960s in Turin, Genoa, Milan, Bologna and other cities in the northern industrial belt were self-proclaimed anti-capitalist radicals, recruited from Catholic Action, Trotskyist factions, and ethnic minorities, for the under-30 demonstrators, the real agenda was more ambitious — but also more feasible. It was a social-cultural transformation to be engineered from above. Longtime advocates of Marxism, like film-maker P.P. Pasolini and Marx-scholar Lucio Colletti, raged against these usurpers, and they called for ousting them from respectable leftist gatherings. Colletti went so far as to call the police to eject these “decadents” from his office; and Pasolini saw their agitation on the Italian Left with growing apprehension and referred to their statements as a “verbal disease.”
This post-Marxist, anti-bourgeois Left had less sympathy for Communist parties than they do for other socialist groups, and they have gotten on particularly well with the Greens. As the Greens shifted their focus from environmentalism to filling Western countries with the Third World poor and with promoting alternative lifestyles, they became indistinguishable from the post-Marxist Left. By the end of the Cold War, Communism in the West had become obsolete because the cultural Marxist Left had taken its place and because this replacement Left was shaping the left side of the political spectrum in western Europe.
The Communist parties in France, Italy, and Germany continued to function as one of several bastions of Cultural Marxism but not usually as its vital center. A similar process unfolded in the Soviet empire more slowly. Under the noses of Communist officials in East Germany, cultural radicals, and most prominently Stasi informant and now head of the German Party of the Democratic Left, Gregor Gysi, were coming into their own. The DDR’s collapse allowed these radicals to join those in the West who were pushing the same antibourgeois projects, namely, gay and feminist rights, harping on fascist dangers, and turning nation states into branches of a global managerial regime.
One might try to challenge the eventual direction of my argument by insisting this has nothing to do with FOX or Glenn Beck. The conservative movement proclaims itself to be anti-leftist. It mocks the glorification of Islam and upholds Western democratic and feminist ideas; and it defends the sovereignty of the American state against international organizations. A well-paid GOP satirist, Mark Steyn, actually derides Europeans and Canadians nonstop for catering to anti-Western fanatics. I could not therefore be suggesting that our official conservatives represent cultural Marxist or liberal Christian quirks.
In fact I am suggesting precisely this view.
And I would make the further point that what separates our authorized right-center from the post-Marxist Left, in Europe and on the American and Canadian Left, is mostly quantitative. While the Left pushes Political Correctness without buts or ifs, the conservative movement expresses it in a less extreme form. But both groups reflect in varying degrees the same general cultural movement. Like our Left and like the dominant ideology in Western Europe, our 30- and 40-some conservative publicists are immersed in a leftist culture. And the result is something that all of them believe things that adults in the 1950s, including Communist sympathizers, would barely have understood.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Sarah Palin, who is an outspoken advocate of anti-discrimination laws for women, is more radical socially than were French and Italian Communist leaders sixty years ago. While old-fashioned CP members favored a centrally controlled economy and rooted for the Soviet side in the Cold War, unlike Sarah, they were not eager to punish sexists. And they didn’t give a hoot about gays, up until the time Communist parties were under siege from the post-Marxist Left. It is inconceivable that Communists of this era would have followed Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, John Podhoretz, the neocon New York Post and the WSJ in affirming government-enforced “gay rights.” Two historians of the post-World War Two Communist movements in France and Italy, Annie Kriegel and Andrea Ragusa, depict a party leadership that belonged, even in spite of itself, to a bourgeois age. They stress the degree to which Communist parties embodied the social attitudes of the pre-Vatican Two Church.
Acceptable critics of the Islamic invasion of Europe like Steyn and Christopher Caldwell are targeting (and this must be noted) a specifically European experiment in multiculturalism. America’s willingness to take in and naturalize just about anybody does not bother these critics; presumably our big tent can hold lots more than we already have. By declaring ourselves to be a “propositional nation” held together by human rights and the belief in universal democratic equality, we are opening our doors to the world, or at least to those in the world who affirm our universalist creed.
I’ve also learned over the last two decades thanks to movement conservative celebrities: that Martin Luther King was acting specifically as a conservative Christian theologian when he spearheaded the civil rights revolution; that gay marriage, properly understood, may be a conservative “family value;” and that we are duty-bound to convert Muslims to our current notion of women’s rights and gay rights. It is precisely these ideas that make us “Western”; and if we truly value the glories of our civilization, which came into existence during some recent phase of late modernity, we should work to spread everywhere our high ideals. Equally relevant, those who have challenged our human rights beliefs, and most outrageously 19th-century counterrevolutionaries were actually “liberals.” Otherwise these mislabeled conservatives would have embraced the American creed of democratic equality!
A striking example of how deeply leftist thought patterns have affected the Right can be discerned in William F. Buckley responses to the attacks in the liberal/neocon press against the “anti-Semites” Joe Sobran and Pat Buchanan. In National Review in December 1991 and March 1992 and in his subsequent In Search of Anti-Semitism, Buckley distinguishes between those who are anti-Semites by conviction and those who are “contextually” anti-Jewish. His key distinction goes back to the Marxist notion of being an “objective reactionary,” meaning someone who challenges the preferences of the Communist Party. Buckley’s argument from context likewise recalls the charge in Europe against those who challenge multiculturalism, as greasing the skids for neo-Nazis.
From this standpoint, it does not matter whether or not one says something that is objectively correct. What counts is not upsetting certain VIPs. In Buckley’s brief, neither the malefactors nor the victims have anything to do with the European Holocaust. The catastrophe is being placed at the doorstep of anyone who allows himself to be intimidated into accepting it. Furthermore, the blame in this instance affects American Christians, who are required to show prescribed sensitivity toward particular American Jews. There are surrogate victims and surrogate victimizers, the first being Buckley’s dinner companions and those journalists who felt outraged, and the second being those who made offending remarks but who had nothing to do with Nazi crimes. Offenders had to be driven off the pages of National Review and out of polite society. They are or were the equivalent of what the Communists used to call “social fascists” and what the European guardians of PC consider “fascistoid.” Such antisocial types are contextually dangerous and therefore must be ostracized lest they do harm.
Note that our two contextual anti-Semites were not abetting violence against Jews, any more than European critics of Muslim immigration or German scholars who question the exclusive blame of their country for every major war are trying to unleash pogroms. They have simply run afoul of certain elite groups, by reopening an inconvenient debate. The conservative movement plays this game by declaring any question it doesn’t want raised forever closed. Such questions now include, among a myriad of other things, objecting in any way to the major congressional legislation of the 1960s.
What did remain in the conservative movement from the 1950s through the 1980s was anti-Communism. American conservatives throughout this period were in favor of resistance to Communist expansion and generally viewed the Soviets as an evil empire. But the movement’s arguments against the evil empire changed over the decades, from defending Western civilization against a godless foe to standing up for global democratic values against a reactionary homophobic Russian enemy.
And these changing reasons for an anti-Soviet stand tell much about the movement’s leftward drift. This drift became a forced march after the neoconservatives ascended to power, and its consequences help explain why there is an independent Right. We more than others have resisted the post-Marxist Left. We remain at war with the cultural and political forces that reshaped the Left in the 1960s; the conservative movement by contrast has made its peace with those forces — while emphatically denying what has happened.
The authorized conservative movement has worked to blur this truth. The “victory of the West” in the Cold War is placed into an invented series of conservative triumphs, going from Reagan’s “conservative revolution” in the 1980s through the presidency of Bush II. In the Heritage Foundation’s embellishment, even the Clinton presidency belonged to an “ongoing conservative revolution” that began with Reagan and culminated in Dubya’s democratic crusading. Like Reagan and Bush I and II, Clinton supposedly practiced fiscal conservatism and advanced American concepts of human rights, albeit not as effectively as his Republican rivals. There have also been “good” Europeans who aided this conservative march, including an otherwise run-of-the-mill social leftist Tony Blair, who rallied to the Bush administration. Thatcher and Kohl were two other friends, who supported us during the Cold War. The German chancellor Kohl was obsequious enough, that is, “conservative” enough in the current Pickwickian sense, to make sure that his country’s unification would be a passing stage in his country’s merger with an international body. “Conservative” outside the U.S. means going along with neoconservative policies.
Movement conservatives have also applied the “C” label to things that have nothing to do with any genuine Right. Democratic equality and moderate feminism are two such preferred values that the conservative movement has claimed for itself. Conservative think-tanks have also reinvented self-described leftists as men and women of the Right. The reinventions of King, Joe Lieberman, and Pat Moynihan as “conservative” heroes all exemplify this practice. And such manipulations have their use. The movement can claim to be doing well, even when the Left triumphs.
Conservative publicists have also reconstructed the 1960s, by divorcing its cultural radicalism from its politics. Although nasty hippies, we are told, fouled the air by not brushing their teeth and by smoking pot, the 1960s also produced legislative reforms that would have pleased Edmund Burke. It was the Civil Rights Act that according to Jonah Goldberg bestowed on our country economic freedom — for the first time. And the Voting Rights Act was another “conservative” landmark, because thereafter the federal government made sure that all citizens would be able to vote. In fact it kept certain parts of the country under perpetual federal surveillance, lest the Black-voting proportion fell below certain expected turnouts. After all, voting for one or both of our two institutionalized parties is a “conservative” practice. And presumably the more people of different pigmentation vote, the more “conservative” we become. And equally important, the Immigration Reform of 1965 filled the U.S. with a “conservative” Catholic electorate, the benefits (or conservatism) of which have still to be ascertained.
In the 1950s and 1960s conservatives held markedly different views. While they held no brief for those who were occupying university buildings or taking drugs, they were at least equally unhappy with that era’s political reforms. Not even in their wildest dreams could most of them have imagined that such far-reaching attempts at remaking our country attitudinally and ethnically would one day be declared conservative. And I would make the obvious point that one doesn’t have to applaud Jim Crow laws (and I for one don’t) in order to recognize that measures that were taken to end “discrimination” have created a permanent governmental straightjacket from which we’re not likely to extricate ourselves. There was nothing “conservative” about the congressional and bureaucratic measures by which that straightjacket was constructed.
But today’s conservative movement is about preserving the 1960s. It has turned that decade’s transformative legislation into the cornerstone of “conservative” politics. And then there was that other questionable triumph for the Right. Supposedly the collapse of the Soviet Empire belonged to a series of conservative victories in the West, associated with Reagan, Thatcher, and their successors. But the end of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe did not cause the ideological shift that is sometimes ascribed to it. The Soviets left the stage of History after a more radical Left had taken over; and this occurred preeminently in the West, which had never suffered the fate of a Soviet occupation. This replacement Left reshaped Communist organizations long before the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and in its milder form, it determined the general political culture in Western countries, including that of a transformed American Right.
One cannot complete the story of why there is an independent Right without also looking at the big picture. We are part of that picture, as much as those who now oppose us. But unlike those movement conservatives who do know the truth, we are not given to manipulating the facts. In the West, there were no conservative victors in the Cold War; such victors, if they existed, were the renascent nations of Eastern Europe. And even these deserving victors may be threatened with moral defeat, if the Left that has triumphed in the West, including this country, continues to gain ground.