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.
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.
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.