The typical socialist today is not a union guy who wants higher wages; it’s a transsexual eco-feminist who marches in Antifa and Black Lives Matter rallies and throws cement blocks at her political opponents.
We see it in the riots and looting sweeping the country in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. The socialist left today is concerned less with worker exploitation by the bourgeoisie and more with the race, gender, and transgender grievances of identity politics. I call it identity socialism.
In other words, for identity socialists and for the left more generally, blacks and Latinos are in; whites are out. Women are in; men are out. Gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, together with other, more exotic types are in; heterosexuals are out. Illegals are in; native-born citizens are out. One may think this is all part of the politics of inclusion, but to think that is to get only half the picture. The point, for the left, is not merely to include but also to exclude, to estrange their opponents from their native land.
Marcuse’s RevolutionA German philosopher partly of Jewish descent, Marcuse studied under the philosopher Heidegger before escaping Germany prior to the Nazi ascent. After stints at Columbia, Harvard, and Brandeis, Marcuse moved to California, where he joined the University of California–San Diego and became the guru of the New Left in the 60s.
Marcuse egged on the activists of the 1960s to seize buildings and overthrow the hierarchy of the university, as a kind of first step to fomenting socialist revolution in America. Interestingly, it was Ronald Reagan—then-governor of California—who got Marcuse fired. Still, Marcuse retained his celebrity and influence over the radicals of the time. He did not, of course, create the forces of identity socialism, but he saw, perhaps earlier than anyone else, how they could form the basis for a new and viable socialism in America. That’s the socialism we are dealing with now.
To understand the problem Marcuse confronted, we have to go back to Marx. Marx saw himself as the prophet, not the instigator, of the advent of socialism. We think of Marx as some sort of activist, seeking to organize a workers’ revolution, but Marx emphasized from the outset that the socialist revolution would come inevitably; nothing had to be done to cause it. The Marxist view is nicely summed up by one of Marx’s German followers, Karl Kautsky, who wrote, “Our task is not to organize the revolution but to organize ourselves for the revolution; it is not to make the revolution, but to take advantage of it.”
But what happens when the working class is too secure and contented to revolt? Marx didn’t anticipate this; in fact, the absence of a single worker revolt of the kind Marx predicted, anywhere in the world, is a full and decisive refutation of “scientific” Marxism. In the early 20th century, Marxists across the world were fully aware of this problem. Lenin solved it by assembling a professional cadre of revolutionaries. If the revolution would not be done by the working class, he insisted, it would have to be done for them.
‘Raising Consciousness’Marcuse looked around to identify which groups had a natural antipathy to capitalism. Marcuse knew he could count on the bohemian artists and intellectuals who had long hated industrial civilization, in part because they considered themselves superior to businessmen and shopkeepers. These self-styled “outcasts” were natural recruits for what Marcuse termed the Great Refusal—the visceral repudiation of free-market society.
The problem, however, was that these bohemians were confined to small sectors of Western society: the Schwabing section of Munich, the Left Bank of Paris, Greenwich Village in New York, and a handful of university campuses. By themselves, they were scarcely enough to hold a demonstration, let alone make a revolution.
So Marcuse had to search further. He had to think of a way to take bohemian culture mainstream, to normalize the outcasts and to turn normal people into outcasts. He started with an unlikely group of proles: the young people of the 1960s. Here, finally, was a group that could make up a mass movement.
Yet what a group! Fortunately, Marx wasn’t around to see it; he would have burst out laughing. Abbie Hoffman? Jerry Rubin? Mario Savio? How could people of this sorry stripe, these slack, spoiled products of postwar prosperity, these parodies of humanity, these horny slothful loafers completely divorced from real-world problems, and neurotically focused on themselves, their drugs and sex lives and mind-numbing music, serve as the shock troops of revolution?
Marcuse answered: By “raising their consciousness.” The students were already somewhat alienated from the larger society. They lived in these socialist communes called universities. They took for granted their amenities. Ungrateful slugs that they were, they despised rather than cherished their parents for the sacrifices made on their behalf. They sought “something more,” a form of self-fulfillment that went beyond material fulfillment.
Here, Marcuse recognized, was the very raw material out of which socialism is made in a rich, successful society. Perhaps there was a way to instruct them in oppression, to convert their spiritual anomie into political discontent. Marcuse was confident that an activist group of professors could raise the consciousness of a whole generation of students so they could feel subjectively oppressed even if there were no objective forces oppressing them. Then they would become activists to fight not someone else’s oppression, but their own.
Of course it would take some work to make selfish, navel-gazing students into socially conscious activists. But to Marcuse’s incredible good fortune, the 60s was the decade of the Vietnam War. Students were facing the prospect of being drafted. Thus they had selfish reasons to oppose the war. Yet this selfishness could be harnessed by teaching the students that they weren’t draft-dodging cowards; rather, they were noble resisters who were part of a global struggle for social justice. In this way, bad conscience could itself be recruited on behalf of left-wing activism.
Marcuse portrayed Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong as a kind of Third World proletariat, fighting to free itself from American hegemony. This represented a transposition of Marxist categories. The new working class were the Vietnamese “freedom fighters.” The evil capitalists were American soldiers serving on behalf of the U.S. government. Marcuse’s genius was to tell leftist students in the 1960s that the Vietnamese “freedom fighters” could not succeed without them.
“Only the internal weakening of the superpower,” Marcuse wrote in “An Essay on Liberation,” “can finally stop the financing and equipping of suppression in the backward countries.”
Transposing ClassOK, so now we got the young people. Who else? Marcuse looked around America for more prospective proles, and he found, in addition to the students, three groups ripe for the taking. The first was the Black Power movement, which was adjunct to the civil rights movement. The beauty of this group, from Marcuse’s point of view, is that it would not have to be instructed in the art of grievance; blacks had grievances that dated back centuries.
Consequently, here was a group that could be mobilized against the status quo, and if the status quo could be identified with capitalism, here was a group that should be open to socialism. Through a kind of Marxist transposition, “blacks” would become the working class, “whites” the capitalist class. Race, in this analysis, takes the place of class. This is how we get Afro-socialism, and from there it’s a short step to Latino socialism and every other type of ethnic socialism.
Another emerging source of disgruntlement was the feminists. Marcuse recognized that with effective consciousness raising, they too could be taught to see themselves as an oppressed proletariat. This of course would require another Marxist transposition: “Women” would now be viewed as the working class and “men” the capitalist class; the class category would now be shifted to gender.
“The movement becomes radical,” Marcuse wrote, “to the degree to which it aims, not only at equality within the job and value structure of the established society ... but rather at a change in the structure itself.” Marcuse’s target wasn’t just the patriarchy; it was the monogamous family. In Gramscian terms, Marcuse viewed the heterosexual family itself as an expression of bourgeois culture, so in his view, the abolition of the family would help hasten the advent of socialism.
Roots of IntersectionalityWe see here the roots of “intersectionality.” As the left now holds, one form of oppression is good, but two is better, and three or more is best. The true exemplar of identity socialism is a black or brown male transitioning to be a woman with a Third World background who is trying illegally to get into this country because his—oops, her—own country has allegedly been wiped off the map by climate change.
These latest developments go beyond Marcuse. He didn’t know about intersectionality, but he did recognize the emerging environmental movement as an opportunity to restrict and regulate capitalism. The goal, he emphasized, was “to drive ecology to the point where it is no longer containable within the capitalist framework,” although he recognized that this “means first extending the drive within the capitalist framework.”
Marcuse also inverted Freud to advocate the liberation of eros. Freud had argued that primitive man is single-mindedly devoted to “the pleasure principle,” but as civilization advances, the pleasure principle must be subordinated to what Freud termed “the reality principle.” In other words, civilization is the product of the subordination of instinct to reason. Repression, Freud argued, is the necessary price we must pay for civilization.
Marcuse argued that at some point, however, civilization reaches a point where humans can go the other way. They can release the very natural instincts that have been suppressed for so long and subordinate the reality principle to the pleasure principle. This would involve a release of what Marcuse termed “polymorphous sexuality” and the “reactivation of all erotogenic zones.” We are a short distance here from the whole range of bizarre contemporary preoccupations, from bisexuality to transsexuality and beyond.
Marcuse recognized that mobilizing all these groups—the students, the environmentalists, the blacks, the feminists, the gays—would take time and require a great deal of consciousness raising or reeducation. He saw the university as the ideal venue for carrying out this project, which is why he devoted his own life to teaching and training a generation of socialist and left-wing activists. Over time, Marcuse believed, the university could produce a new type of culture, and that culture would then metastasize into the larger society to infect the media, the movies, even the lifestyle of the titans of the capitalist class itself.
‘Repressive Tolerance’Marcuse is also the philosopher of Antifa. He argued, in a famous essay called “Repressive Tolerance,” that tolerance is not a norm or right that should be extended to all people. Yes, tolerance is good, but not when it comes to people who are intolerant. It is perfectly fine to be intolerant against them, to the point of disrupting them, shutting down their events, preventing them from speaking, even destroying their careers and property.
Marcuse didn’t use the term “hater,” but he invented the argument that it’s legitimate to be hateful against haters. For Marcuse, there were no limits to what could be done to discredit and ruin such people; he wanted the left to defeat them “by any means necessary.” Marcuse even approved of certain forms of domestic terrorism, such as the Weather Underground bombing the Pentagon, on the grounds that the perpetrators were attempting to stop the greater violence that U.S. forces inflict on people in Vietnam and other countries.
Our world is quite different now from what it was in the 1960s, and yet there is so much that seems eerily familiar. When it comes to identity socialism, we are still living with Marcuse’s legacy.