Why Jonathan Chait Is Wrong About Marxism, Liberalism and Free Speech

According to Marxists, the glaring problem with liberalism isn’t its emphasis on freedom and equality, but its inherent inability to ever meaningfully achieve these ideals in practice.

Tyler Zimmer March 29, 2016

Jonathan Chait wants you to be afraid, very afraid, of the Red Menace.

Polls con­sis­tent­ly show that Amer­i­cans under 30 view social­ism more favor­ably than cap­i­tal­ism. This sim­ple fact is a source of pro­found anx­i­ety among lib­er­al and con­ser­v­a­tive com­men­ta­tors alike. Some assure us that the affin­i­ty for social­ism among the young is lit­tle more than a ruse to get laid. Oth­ers attribute the allure of social­ism to youth­ful igno­rance: if only they under­stood that the Sovi­et Union was some­thing more than a grim back­drop for bad action films,” they would nev­er embrace such a bad, old term.” The oth­er ver­sion of this expla­na­tion is the you won’t like social­ism when you grow up and get a job” line which, of course, reveals an embar­rass­ing lack of aware­ness of the fact that it is our country’s severe lack of decent jobs that is dri­ving mil­lions of peo­ple — espe­cial­ly young peo­ple — to embrace social­ist ideas in the first place. 

It’s not difficult to show that what Chait says here about American liberalism is simply false. From slavery and colonial conquest to Jim Crow and violent repression of social movements and dissidents, a quick glance at U.S. history shows that Chait’s favored system and political tradition inspires far less confidence than he suggests.

Whether com­ing from con­ser­v­a­tive or lib­er­al com­men­ta­tors, how­ev­er, all of these argu­ments share an under­ly­ing tone of frus­tra­tion and indig­na­tion, premised on a dog­mat­ic invest­ment in the belief that cap­i­tal­ism is obvi­ous­ly best and social­ism obvi­ous­ly wrong — so wrong, in fact, that it is offen­sive to even open a dia­logue about its merits.

Although cloaked in more intel­lec­tu­al and high-mind­ed lan­guage than his con­ser­v­a­tive coun­ter­parts, Jonathan Chait’s recent piece in New York mag­a­zine exem­pli­fies this trend. It would only be slight­ly unfair to sum­ma­rize his the­sis as fol­lows: how dare these brash young fools speak ill of lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism and warm to Marx­ist ideas!” 

Chait’s basic argu­ment, as the title of his piece implies, is that lib­er­al­ism is work­ing and Marx­ism has always failed.” The prin­ci­pal fail­ure of the lat­ter boils down to one fun­da­men­tal flaw: Marx­ist gov­ern­ments tram­ple on indi­vid­ual rights because Marx­ist the­o­ry does not care about indi­vid­ual rights.” Hence, Mao, Stal­in, Pol Pot… you know the rest of this tat­tered Cold War script.

Nev­er mind that these author­i­tar­i­an mon­strosi­ties had vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing to do with what Marx him­self said or did. There’s noth­ing to see here, Chait assures us, so it’s best if we keep mov­ing and warm up to the sta­tus quo.

Chait gnash­es his teeth most fero­cious­ly when dis­cussing the ques­tion of Marx­ism and free speech. Using a piece in Jacobin defend­ing the recent anti-Trump protests in Chica­go as proof, Chait assures us that if the ill­ber­al left” were to ever gain polit­i­cal pow­er, repres­sion would be a for­gone con­clu­sion.” In con­trast, Chait coun­ter­pos­es lib­er­al­ism as a polit­i­cal project uncom­pro­mis­ing­ly com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing the rights of all.

It’s not dif­fi­cult to show that what Chait says here about Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism is sim­ply false. From slav­ery and colo­nial con­quest to Jim Crow and vio­lent repres­sion of social move­ments and dis­si­dents, a quick glance at U.S. his­to­ry shows that Chait’s favored sys­tem and polit­i­cal tra­di­tion inspires far less con­fi­dence than he suggests.

The more inter­est­ing ques­tion, how­ev­er, is whether what he says about Marx­ism and rights is true. It’s instruc­tive that Chait includes not a sin­gle quo­ta­tion or para­phrase from Marx or any seri­ous Marx­ist polit­i­cal thinker — to do so, of course, would under­mine his car­toon­ish car­i­ca­ture of the view he aims to refute.

The sim­plest way to sum­ma­rize the core of Marx­ism is to begin with Marx and Engel’s insis­tence that the eman­ci­pa­tion of the work­ing class must be con­quered by the work­ing class­es them­selves.” This strug­gle for eman­ci­pa­tion”, they con­tin­ued, “[is] not a strug­gle for class priv­i­leges and monop­o­lies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abo­li­tion of all class rule.”

The basic idea is this: Instead of appeal­ing to gods or sav­iors to lib­er­ate human­i­ty from above, Marx argued that the mass­es of work­ing-class peo­ple who make up the vast major­i­ty of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties could, by orga­niz­ing them­selves col­lec­tive­ly, rad­i­cal­ly trans­form soci­ety for the better.

In cap­i­tal­ism, work­ing peo­ple often feel like iso­lat­ed, vul­ner­a­ble play­things of chaot­ic eco­nom­ic forces they can’t con­trol. The cen­tral theme in Marx­ism is that this need not be so. Rather than being pas­sive­ly sub­ject to an eco­log­i­cal­ly ruinous sys­tem based sole­ly on prof­it, Marx argued that the vast major­i­ty of human beings can and must bring the eco­nom­ic sys­tem under their con­scious, col­lec­tive control.

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that Marx and Engels weren’t the first social­ists. They dis­tin­guished them­selves by oppos­ing ear­li­er social­ists who sought to admin­is­ter social­ism from above by devis­ing detailed blue­prints of what they saw as an ide­al soci­ety. Unlike the utopi­an social­ists,” for exam­ple, who thought the mass­es too igno­rant or help­less to lib­er­ate them­selves from the injus­tices of cap­i­tal­ism, Marx and Engels argued that a bet­ter soci­ety could only be built by the con­scious, delib­er­ate activ­i­ty of a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly orga­nized rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment of ordi­nary work­ing peo­ple. This puts Marx­ism at odds with author­i­tar­i­an bureau­crat­ic regimes who claim Marx’s man­tle like those of Stal­in or Mao as well as with tech­no­crat­ic, neolib­er­al visions of gov­er­nance that lim­it demo­c­ra­t­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion to the van­ish­ing point.

Although it may not seem like it at first glance, this bot­tom-up vision of work­ing-class self-eman­ci­pa­tion is what Engels’s per­sis­tent­ly mis­un­der­stood phrase the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at” is all about. Think of it like this. For social­ists, cap­i­tal­ism is lit­tle more than a dic­ta­tor­ship of cap­i­tal” — that is, an econ­o­my and polit­i­cal sys­tem rigged in favor of the rich­est of the rich. In oppo­si­tion to this unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem of elite rule, Engels coun­ter­posed social­ism as a dic­ta­tor­ship of the peo­ple” where, for the first time in his­to­ry, the pop­u­lar sov­er­eign­ty of the mass­es of work­ers would no longer be con­strained by the pow­er of the rich.

In this respect, Marx­ism is not a clean break with ear­li­er Enlight­en­ment ideals of free­dom, equal­i­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty. It’s a deter­mined attempt to ful­ly real­ize them in prac­tice. Accord­ing to Marx­ists, the glar­ing prob­lem with lib­er­al­ism isn’t its empha­sis on free­dom and equal­i­ty, but its inher­ent inabil­i­ty to ever mean­ing­ful­ly achieve these ideals in practice.

Take, for exam­ple, indi­vid­ual rights like rights to free expres­sion. The Marx­ist argu­ment isn’t that free expres­sion is a bad thing; the argu­ment is that lib­er­als have an ane­mic, pure­ly for­mal under­stand­ing of free speech rights that ignores the fact that, in prac­tice, the abil­i­ty to make one’s voice heard in pub­lic debates is extreme­ly unequal­ly distributed.

After all, on paper Don­ald Trump and I both have the same for­mal, lib­er­al right to free speech. But in prac­tice, Trump’s immense wealth grants him orders of mag­ni­tude greater abil­i­ty to express his views in public.

For the clas­si­cal lib­er­al, the wealthy media mogul who owns news­pa­pers and TV sta­tions has the same free speech rights as the jan­i­tor who cleans his office. For Marx­ists, this absur­di­ty reveals a fatal flaw at the core of lib­er­al pol­i­tics: it’s not pos­si­ble to real­ize ideals of demo­c­ra­t­ic self-rule, free­dom and equal­i­ty with­in a sys­tem based on rad­i­cal class inequality.

To their cred­it, mod­ern Amer­i­can lib­er­als have since moved on from the ear­li­er, clas­si­cal lib­er­al denial that cap­i­tal­ism is built on class inequal­i­ty — mod­ern lib­er­als in the Unit­ed States, for instance, embrace some ele­ments of the wel­fare state and view the labor move­ment in a gen­er­al­ly pos­i­tive light where­as this would have been anath­e­ma to ear­li­er lib­er­al fore­bear­ers. But this shift to the left must be seen for what it real­ly is: an attempt to shore up an unin­spir­ing and lim­it­ed polit­i­cal project by co-opt­ing pro­gram­mat­ic demands from the social­ist move­ment, includ­ing Marxism.

But even on the ter­rain of basic rights — where lib­er­als ought to be on firmest ground — lib­er­al­ism isn’t as con­vinc­ing as it pur­ports to be.

After all, what is the point of rights, such as a right to free speech, in the first place? Arguably, the Marx­ist answer to this ques­tion is far more per­sua­sive than the lib­er­al response. For lib­er­als, free speech” has no rai­son d’etre—it is an alleged­ly nat­ur­al” right we always have that seems to admit of no abridge­ment whatsoever.

For Marx­ists, on the oth­er hand, free­dom of expres­sion is not a free-float­ing abstrac­tion — it’s a key aspect of the rad­i­cal demo­c­ra­t­ic vision of build­ing a soci­ety free of oppres­sion and exploita­tion. Marx­ists val­ue free speech because they are com­mit­ted to build­ing a soci­ety where all can decide mat­ters of pub­lic con­cern demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly, as gen­uine equals. Thus, the Marx­ist has a con­sis­tent way of explain­ing why speech that aims to dom­i­nate or mar­gin­al­ize oth­ers should be chal­lenged rather than pro­tect­ed: it is con­trary to the very val­ues ani­mat­ing our com­mit­ment to free speech in the first place.

What’s more, since our own soci­ety falls rad­i­cal­ly short of the demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals of free­dom and equal­i­ty, it would be absurd to say that acts of dis­rup­tion or civ­il dis­obe­di­ence aimed at real­iz­ing those ideals are wrong. Indeed, the ratio­nale for dis­rupt­ing Trump’s ral­ly in Chica­go wasn’t to pre­vent him from say­ing mere­ly offen­sive or dis­agree­able things. It was about stand­ing up to social forces that have the pub­licly stat­ed aim of mar­gin­al­iz­ing and scape­goat­ing some of the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of our soci­ety. It was for the sake of demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues, not in spite of them, that tens of thou­sands of peo­ple turned out to shut down Trump in Chicago.

So, on the ques­tion of free speech, the Marx­ist view is clear: free expres­sion is valu­able because it flows from an ide­al of social and polit­i­cal rela­tion­ships among equals in a just soci­ety. This explains why, to quote Jelani Cobb, the free­dom to offend the pow­er­ful is not equiv­a­lent to the free­dom to bul­ly the rel­a­tive­ly dis­em­pow­ered.” It also pro­vides a prin­ci­pled, con­sis­tent basis for oppos­ing and dis­rupt­ing the pub­lic acts of open­ly racist orga­ni­za­tions that seek to sub­or­di­nate, harm, scape­goat or mar­gin­al­ize others.

What should lib­er­als say about these mat­ters? Chait implies that free speech rights are absolute — any inter­fer­ence what­so­ev­er with the abil­i­ty of any per­son or group to express their views is unjus­ti­fied. But sure­ly he wouldn’t accept such a strong view if he thought about the mat­ter more care­ful­ly — unless, that is, he would be will­ing to embrace the con­sis­tent (but wild­ly implau­si­ble) view that is unjust to pro­hib­it peo­ple from yelling fire” in a crowd­ed movie theater.

Chait could try to wrig­gle off the hook here by advo­cat­ing trade­offs between dif­fer­ent sorts of rights when they come into con­flict — he could, for exam­ple, say that free speech rights may be abridged when they con­flict with oth­er, more fun­da­men­tal rights such as the right to bod­i­ly integri­ty. But this already con­cedes too much to the Marx­ist. First, it admits that there are some­times good rea­sons to inter­fere with the abil­i­ty of some per­sons or groups to express them­selves pub­licly. The ques­tion then becomes: when and for which rea­sons is it legit­i­mate to do this? It’s hard to see how the lib­er­al approach can yield con­clu­sions here that aren’t painful­ly arbi­trary or ad hoc.

Unlike most Amer­i­can lib­er­als, I don’t think it would be just or legit­i­mate to empow­er an unac­count­able, unelect­ed court to decide the mat­ter how­ev­er they see fit. Here’s a case where the Marx­ist approach seems much clear­er and more per­sua­sive: the (social­ist) goal of coop­er­at­ing and gov­ern­ing pub­lic life togeth­er as full equals gives us a prin­ci­pled cri­te­ri­on for decid­ing which forms of expres­sion deserve pro­tec­tion and which don’t. So, too, does this goal give us good rea­son to oppose or dis­rupt unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic forms of speech that plain­ly aim to mar­gin­al­ize, harm, or sub­or­di­nate mem­bers of the polit­i­cal community.

Chait’s broad­side attack on Marx­ism isn’t all about rights, how­ev­er. He ends on what he hopes will be an uplift­ing note, extolling the alleged virtues of our pop­u­lar, sit­ting lib­er­al pres­i­dent” who has passed the most impor­tant egal­i­tar­i­an social reforms in half a cen­tu­ry.” But for me — and, I would think, for many oth­ers who occu­py a ten­u­ous, inse­cure eco­nom­ic place in our unequal soci­ety — this falls flat. A recent study by polit­i­cal sci­en­tists at Prince­ton and North­west­ern con­firmed what many on the Left have argued all along: The polit­i­cal sys­tem in the Unit­ed States is dom­i­nat­ed by the wealthy and the pref­er­ences of ordi­nary cit­i­zens have almost zero impact on what becomes law. On the eco­nom­ic front, wealth and income inequal­i­ty con­tin­ues to soar; mil­lions remain shack­led by crush­ing amounts of stu­dent debt; wages con­tin­ue to stag­nate even as pro­duc­tiv­i­ty increas­es; unem­ploy­ment remains alarm­ing­ly high, espe­cial­ly for mil­len­ni­als.”

If this is what it looks like when lib­er­al­ism is work­ing, I shud­der to think about what our soci­ety might look like when it isn’t.

Tyler Zim­mer teach­es phi­los­o­phy at North­east­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty and is a mem­ber of Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sion­als of Illi­nois, Local 4100, IFT, AFT.
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