MARSCHALL: The Fatal Mistake Conservatives Make About Marx

In 1974, Philippe Petit walked a tightrope suspended between the roofs of the World Trade Center towers. The slightest misstep could have killed him. Petit lived because he did not put a foot wrong. 

Petit’s balancing act is a good metaphor for what conservatives must do when they criticize leftist ideologies. Higher education and mainstream media already despise us, and therefore look for any chances to discredit our side as ill-informed. No matter the facts, we are always one misstep away from intellectual irrelevance in the forums where liberals hold power – the classrooms, newsrooms, and the tech boardrooms.

Frustratingly, the left has ample opportunities to discredit our ideas because too many conservatives are too casual with their language.

Several conservative podcasters, influencers, and pundits confuse the terms “socialist,” “Marxist,” and “communist.” I often see them saying “Marxist” when “[state] socialist” or “communist” is more precise descriptor. The impression that conservatives do not know what they are saying allows liberal critics to call the rest of our arguments into question. Doing so invalidates conservatism in the eyes of centrist audiences who could be persuaded to our side.

For example, Republicans’ loose accusations of Democrats’ “communist” or “socialist” policies in 2022 led New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore to write the article “Do Republicans Know What Communism Is?”

“Some Republicans have taken to calling Democrats ‘communists.’ It betrays a willful historical ignorance,” the subtitle read.

In 2020, the left-wing publication Jacobin published a scathing – but unfortunately true – assessment of conservatives’ problems with leftist terminologies. “Getting the basics of Marxism right is important for any robust debate about the future of capitalism and the political antagonisms that shape our present era,” the article reasonably states in a subsection called “Marx Deserves Better Critics.”

This trend is problematic for conservatives because it preserves the woke echo chambers in schools, businesses, news, and politics that are destroying our country. Conservatives face double standards to be taken seriously, but that does not change the fact that the left still holds the power over which opinions are more valid than others. By committing unforced errors on “Marxism” and other terms, conservatives are letting voices like Jacobin peddle insipid leftist ideals unchallenged.

Jacobin may be a niche publication, but the practice trickles down to electoral politics, which affect all Americans. Also in 2020, NPR published the article “Republicans Blast Democrats as Socialists. Here’s What Socialism Is” as part of its coverage of the Republican National Convention. The outlet suggested Republicans did not understand the nuances of socialism and then proceeded to defend Joe Biden as a “moderate and pragmatist.”

Joe Biden won with the help of this kind of media coverage.

Conservatism is a self-defeating exercise if it cannot replicate its opponents’ logics precisely and define the resulting failures accurately. It cannot expect to reverse this country’s embrace of socialist principles if it gives the left an “out” from confronting its own ideological failures.

Conservatives need to engage with communist, socialist, and Marxist texts more to articulate why the ideas are dangerous. Only firsthand experience with those works can help someone understand how the left operates and why it is wrong.

First-time readers can also consult primers and introductory explainers if they need help working through complex scholarly or economic jargon. Many of these resources are available for free online and can give conservatives the tools to sharpen their arguments.

For example, the “Comparative Economic Systems” report argues that “socialism and communism are often used interchangeably” because both “emerged as critique of capitalism and both these systems seek to…eliminate the influence of economic classes in society.”

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which does important anti-totalitarian advocacy, exemplifies how the terms often appear interchangeable. The Foundation’s mission is to “commemorat[e] the more than 100 million victims of communism,” but its website also states that “real examples of socialism today are China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Vietnam, and Venezuela.”

The Foundation’s usage is not incorrect, according to Boston University’s definitions. “[T]here has never been a communist country because no socialist system has been able to develop to the point that it has created the necessary pre-conditions for the utopian system of communism to take root,” the 2021 report states. That statement validates the Foundation’s practice to label the current regimes as “socialist.”

However, the differences between socialism and communism are extremely complex and can still cause confusion, even when used correctly.

Both socialism and communism are leftist ideologies that oppose the private accumulation of wealth and ownership under capitalism. In the simplest terms, socialism describes and economic system while communism describes a form of government.

“In a socialist system, the means of production are collectively owned, either by workers or by the government,” the Boston University report states. Socialism still allows for democratic government. Socialist economic policies and democratic political processes define “state socialism,” which predominates in Scandinavia and the Democratic Party’s left flank.

Communism promotes collective ownership, but it also has a utopian objective – which the Boston University report refers to – that prescribes specific forms of government to abolish class structures.

The report states:

“What is distinctive about communism is its highly utopian nature, where private property is entirely abolished, and all property is owned communally. In this society, there is no need for money as wealth accumulation and private ownership ceases to exist and all economic output is distributed according to people’s need. Thus, a ‘pure’ communist society is classless, moneyless, and stateless.”

To complicate matters further, Marxism and communism are not the same thing. Karl Marx did not invent communism. He refined established leftist ideas during the 19th century and then used philosophical critiques and economic observations to create his own interpretation of class struggle.

Marxism describes one strand of communism. But the communist ideologies that preceded and followed Marx are not necessarily Marxist. Trotskyism, Leninism, and Maoism were initially influenced by Marx’s writings, but the ideologies departed from Marx as they were applied or practiced. So, while Marx is communist, not all communist ideas are Marxist.

Reading leftist scholars’ books does not make me hate their values any less. I despise what they represent. But I also understand that firsthand knowledge of their knowledge helps me be a better voice for conservatism.

To win elections and the long-term culture wars, conservatives need to think about the political center, which abhors leftism. Those capitalists are receptive to our message, but they are not going to join us if the political and cultural leaders they respect keep stating that conservatives do not know what they are saying. 

Image: Title: marx


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