Bryan Caplan  

Remember Marxism?

Antiestablishmentarianism... In Defense of FIRE...
Lately I've been hearing abundant apocalyptic rhetoric about the collapse of traditional Western norms of critical thinking, free inquiry, and tolerance.  The story, roughly, is that after a century of unprecedented intellectual freedom, a new generation of barbarians - mostly "social justice warriors," with some alt-righters thrown in - has suddenly emerged in our midst.  And they're quite likely to get their way, because most of us have forgotten what critical thinking, free inquiry, and tolerance are all about.

As usual, I resist this doom-saying.  For starters, there's a massive historical blind spot.  Marxism was the most influential ideology of the 20th century.  Its founder had zero appreciation of intellectual freedom.  His most influential followers - the Marxist-Leninists - took him literally.  When they held power, they murdered and imprisoned even their mildest critics on a massive scale.  When they lacked power, they used their intellectual freedom in the "bourgeois democracies" to pave the way for totalitarianism.  Moderate Marxists were far less consistent and determined, but few embraced intellectual freedom on principle.  Marxism's dominance looks even greater once you realize that fascism was a Marxist heresy founded by Mussolini, former leader of the radical wing of the Italian Socialist Party.  Western civilization is not at the tail end of a century of stable intellectual freedom. 

So a mighty enemy of intellectual freedom was in our midst for the bulk of the 20th century.  Does this mean we shouldn't worry about the latest challenge?  No, but we should keep matters in perspective.  The last storm featured a juggernaut of an external threat combined with vocal internal sympathy for the juggernaut.  Intellectual freedom weathered the storm nonetheless.  A few thousand internet and campus activists are insignificant in comparison.  A steely revolutionary like Lenin would have scorned them as soft, impulsive dreamers.  This may be little consolation if protestors won't let you speak, but things could be way worse.  And not long ago, they were.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
ThisPers0n writes:

I agree with the basic point of this article, but on the other hand you're letting ideology cloud your judgement. Fascism was not left wing, Mussolini was not left wing. I understand your motivation to counter many people's overly sympathetic beliefs about communism, but you don't need to resort to warped history in order to achieve it.

It is also strange that this column makes no mention of Trump, the most obvious threat to free speech and free inquiry at the present. He has deleted scientific data from government websites, threatened to imprison his political opponents and has threatened to change libel laws to make it easier to silence critical journalists.

All of this is evidence against this article's implicit thesis, that leftism is more amenable to censorship than conservatism.

Matt C writes:

Have to agree. Freedom of any kind, especially intellectual freedom, requires constant vigilance. Things are never as good as they seem, nor are they never as bad.

People love to use words like "historic" and "unprecedented," but they are rarely accurate.

Pajser writes:

It is not true that Marx "had zero appreciation of intellectual freedom." For instance, he wrote:

    "Above all, the offense of censorship is that it regiments the mind; it exercises tutelage over the highest interest of the citizens, their minds ... [it] regulates the behavior of the public mind which is more than the Roman censors did. You marvel at the delightful diversity, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not ask the rose to smell like the violet; but the richest of all, the mind, is supposed to exist in only a single manner?" (Comments Lat. Pruss. Cens., MEW 1:4,6).

This is another interesting quote.

    "... with the lack of freedom of the press all other freedoms become illusory. Every form of freedom conditions the others just as every bodily member affects everγ other. Every time one form of freedom is rejected, it is freedom that is rejected and deprived of any semblance of life; after that pure chance will decide just what will be the but of unfreedom’s overweening power." (Debates Freedom of Press, MEW 1:33).
Arilando writes:

I wonder, have you ever read anything by Marx, or do you base your opinion of him and of marxism on slanderous sites like the one you linked to? As said by a commentator above, Marx was in favor of intellectual freedom and freedom of the press.

Lawrence writes:

I agree that there are a fair number of people overblowing the threat from SJWs (and the 'alt-right'), but I'm not sure how this is comforting. The fact that, last century, an illiberal movement that disdained basic enlightenment freedoms killed, by some credible estimates, 100 million people, imprisoned countless millions more, and held a large part of the globe in ideological totalitarianism for generations, means that we don't need to be too concerned about current illiberal movements that disdain basic enlightenment freedoms?

MikeW writes:

Thanks for the perspective, Bryan. Good points. Unfortunately, Lawrence also provides an important perspective....

Weir writes:

Karl Marx says "the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism."

But Ayaan Hirsi Ali is banned from Brandeis. And to Tim Garton Ash, writing in the New York Review, she's an "enlightenment fundamentalist." This guy wasn't attacking Vaclav Havel in the 1980s. This guy was for liberalism before he was against it. Here's a specific example of someone who used to be smart. What changed?

Ian Buruma, in the 1980s, wasn't attacking Andrei Sakharov or Lech Walesa. Are some dissidents less equal than others? Ayaan Hirsi Ali's criticism is offensive to "a vulnerable minority" and to Buruma, writing in the New York Times, criticising a critic whose friend Theo van Gogh died in the street with a knife in his chest. The armed men who stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo are essentially vulnerable, vulnerable regardless of anything they merely do with their guns.

We get blurred and blocked-out photos of cartoons of a guy in a turban, and a TV host scrambling to cover up a piece of paper when a guest attempts to hold up for the camera a print-out of an unacceptable drawing. The creator of Doonesbury stands shoulder to shoulder with Francine Prose and Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole, blaming the victims, when armed men murder cartoonists in France.

There are novelists for censorship, and other novelists who need censoring. Lionel Shriver is out of line. Ian McEwan needs a re-education. Martin Amis must make amends.

Kelefa Sanneh in the New Yorker speaks out for censorship. The editorial board of the New York Times sides with Hillary Clinton against Citizens United. Eric Holder puts James Rosen on the terrorist watch list, and it's no big deal to most other reporters.

Some guy who put a video on YouTube went to jail when the President and his Secretary of State pretended that this video was to blame for an attack on the Benghazi embassy. Were the late night hosts outraged about that? How many of them are against lying per se, or on principle?

Senator Charles Schumer says "the First Amendment is not absolute." Governor Howard Dean says "hate speech" is a crime. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says even scientific data should be made illegal, if it's offensive data. Call it hate data. Call it a hurtful, offensive temperature record.

Laura Kipnis is a target now. Chris Rock has to watch himself. Molly Norris is in hiding. Christine Lagarde is not left-wing enough. Larry Summers must abase himself. Germaine Greer needs to be "no-platformed" now. James Watson's a non-person at NYU.

How many campus activists does it take anyway? When the campus authorities are so eager to cave?

Adam Smith calls Oxford "a sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection after they have been hunted out of every corner of the world."

So is it better or worse now than in 1776? Or in Galileo's day? Are the exploded systems and obsolete prejudices quarantined to campus? Or is this the establishment, at NYU and CBS and DOJ?

Brian writes:

I think the more comparable movement to the SJW is not the marxist (who never really had a presence in America anyway) but 50's style Mccarthyism.

Both demanded position taking, both sought to curb free expression, both demand intellectual conformity, etc., etc..

The threat of SJW is overblown. As far as I can tell, SJW are mostly limited to twitter and college campuses, and even on college campuses they are not as influential as we make them out to be (I've never met a physics major who needed a safe space). I think because colleges now cater to the students (i.e. customers) more than they have in the past that they are more tolerant and sympathetic to these emotional outbursts.

Kailer writes:

You could argue that these incidents on campus are a pareto improvement. Campus republicans get to feel self righteous about defending free speech, the speaker sells books, journalists get fodder for columns and radical leftists get to live out their Che Guevera fantasies without all the hassle and human tragedy of an actual revolution. Everybody wins.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Mussolini wrote for L’Avvenire del Lavoratore (The Worker’s Future). He preached violent revolution and praised Karl Marx. In 1912 he became editor of Avanti! (Forward!), the official daily newspaper of Italy’s Socialist Party.

Then he founded the fascist party. Here's his Fascist Manifest. It's not exactly a "conservative" nor anti-marxist/anti-socialist document. Quite the opposite.

Are any of those facts incorrect? Did Mussolini suddenly change views at some point. Why?

The differences between fascism and national socialism on the one side and Marxist/Russian International Socialism on the other side weren't debates about socialist ideas or left/right as we would think of them today. The primary difference was supremacy of the national socialist governments vs. supremacy of the international socialist movement. The divide was about who was to be in charge of nationalizing things, of organizing the worker's councils and of setting up progressive taxes, not about which philosophy to follow.


Good point. :) Don't forget the utility of throwing free speech issues in the face of left-wing media members who are supposed to at least theoretically (in Progressive ideology) be it's biggest defenders. When they're criticizing the ACLU for coming out in defense of free speech rights... hmmm...

Per Kurowski writes:

Brian Kaplan writes: “Lately I've been hearing abundant apocalyptic rhetoric about the collapse of traditional Western norms of critical thinking, free inquiry, and tolerance… As usual, I resist this doom-saying…. A few thousand internet and campus activists are insignificant”

But some global bank regulators are not insignificant

In 1988 with Basel I, in order to fulfill their wet dream of financial stability the Basel Committee for Banking Supervision introduced risk weighted capital requirements for banks not caring one iota about how that would distort the allocation of bank credit to the real economy. And I can think of little as statist as a 0% risk weight for the Sovereign and 100% for the citizens.

I have seen little resistance to the intellectual aberration of making those capital requirements that are to cover for the unexpected, based on the ex ante perceived risks already cleared for by banks by means of the size of the exposure and interest rates.

Durán writes:

Collectivist ideology was the biggest threat to humankind last century. However, collectivism darkest variant, Marxism, was not nearly a dominant ideological force in U.S. university campuses as it was -and still is- in European or Latin American universities. Unfortunately, “political correctness” -the most recent and abstruse version of collectivism- took over U.S. universities after Berlin Wall's fall. Communists in U.S. academia never had the clout, the exposure or dreamt about the oppressive measures political correctness has imposed in American campuses. So I beg to differ on a rosy view of what is to come. Unless civil society and benefactors assume a tough stance on true diversity and tolerance in U.S. universities we will soon witness how collectivism will destroy high education and several generations of young, well-meaning people.

Michael McCombie writes:

If the "criticism of religion," says Marx,"is the beginning of all criticism." Then, the ending of all criticism is equally true, in that, "The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man, hence the categorical imperative(to recast the old rotten thing, the State) and to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, and otherwise despicable being” is the only way how best to always remember Marxism.

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