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Grand Old Misconceptions

September 7, 2012

At the New York Review of Books blog in their current issue, Timothy Snyder has a featured piece entitled “Grand Old Marxists.” In it, Snyder argues that Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, and the leadership of the Republican Party more generally, in combatting the specter of Marxism, are relying on the same failed (as he puts it) assumptions of Marxism that

politics is a matter of one simple truth, that the state will eventually cease to matter, and that a vanguard of intellectuals is needed to bring about a utopia that can be known in advance.

Snyder concludes with this prescription, in contrast to what he declaims about the Far Right and the Marxist Left:

The way to national prosperity in the twenty-first century is surely to think non-ideologically, to recognize that politics is a choice among constraints and goods rather than a story about a single good that would triumph if only evil people would allow it to function without constraints. The market works very well for some things, the government is desperately needed for others, and stories that dismiss either one are nothing more than ideology.

It sounds so very sensible. Except when you look more closely.

The NYRB has some of the very best writers on the planet tackling heady topics. Its readership is among the most educated anywhere. Yet this particular article is exceedingly impoverished in its basic argument, relying upon stereotypical notions not only of Marxism, but also of the theoretical heroes of Paul Ryan, Frederick Hayek and Ayn Rand.

To untangle the damage that Snyder’s article has done, however, requires so many more words than his original article, especially when what is amiss here is based upon prejudices and misconceptions that are considered the accepted wisdom.

As it happens, I have a book (Globalization and the Demolition of Society) on the very topic that Snyder writes about, except that it is that which Snyder claims can’t legitimately exist: a Marxist critique of what’s wrong with Hayek and Rand on a fundamental level. According to Snyder, Marxism and the neoliberal ideologists Hayek and Rand are actually unwitting fellow travelers.

Let us consider the three assumptions that Snyder claims that Marxists and neoliberals share and see where that takes us.

Snyder: Marxists and neoliberals believe that politics is a matter of one simple truth.

The simple truth that Snyder alleges obsesses the free marketers and Marxists is the notion that there is a single good that, if allowed to flourish, will defeat evil and usher in a utopia. While it is true that neoliberals – Hayek is neoliberalism’s theoretical godfather and Rand its head female cheerleader – believe that allowing market forces to operate unimpeded by government (witness, for example, right-wing extremist and GOP activist Grover Norquist’s famous remark that he wants to reduce government so much that he can “drown it in a bathtub”), genuine Marxists regard the idea that there is a simple good versus an implacable bad as ridiculous.

To give Snyder his due, one can make a case that his Marxist straw man does fit certain Marxists and that there is a strain within Marxism that fits his stereotype: those who believe in a kind of essentialism – that being a worker makes you automatically proletarian and revolutionary in outlook and that the onset of classless society (communism) is going to be more or less automatic and inevitable.

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, notably has written extensively and deeply about these very subjects. He and the RCP, USA are engaged, as we speak, in vigorous polemics with certain other Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Parties in the world about these very subjects. See, for example, revcom.us/a/274/rimipublish-final.pdf. This is well-worth reading in its entirety. As one can see from it, the Marxism that Snyder describes is a caricature of the worst, most dogmatic kind of Marxism.

There is a fundamental difference between asserting that a) truth exists and that b) one has a monopoly over what that truth is. Proposition (a) is entirely valid and extremely important and (b) is invalid and a product of a lack of experience, the humility that usually comes from experience (both personal and that of the experience of all of humanity and the history of society and the universe), and/or discomfort at the idea of uncertainty and the desire to cling to absolute, unchanging “truths.”

On a philosophical level, the heart of Marxism is dialectics and dialectics doesn’t adhere to a simple, single truth other than the fact that all things divide into two. But one can hardly reasonably call that perspective simple. Dialectics asserts, in fact, that reality is complex, changing, and nuanced.

Snyder claims the ideological and political middle as the proper ground: the idea that “politics is a choice among constraints and goods rather than a story about a single good….” He claims, as is the wont of those who see themselves as “non-ideological,” to be speaking on behalf of the sensible. But his very description of politics as choosing among constraints and goods fails to recognize the fact that in order to choose among constraints and goods requires that one come at it from some value-stance, that is, from some ideology.

As I point out in my book, people who have suffered a particular kind of brain injury and who have lost the ability to make value-judgments but can still reason as well as they could before their accident are unable to reach a conclusion. Vulcans of Star Trek fame who supposedly reason with utter detachment, in other words, could not exist as a species. Value judgments are inherent and necessary in the very process of reasoning.

What separates neoliberals (not only Paul Ryan but also the entire leadership of the Democratic Party) from Marxists (and others who share at least some of the worldview of Marxists) at bottom is a fundamental difference over how to look at humanity and the physical universe. To the neoliberals, people and the environment are objects to be manipulated. To genuine Marxists, people and the environment are to be treated as ends in themselves, not means to an end.

As I put it at the end of Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

[D]ifferent classes and different groups have different material interests, and those material interests are reflected in ideologies, values, beliefs, and their pursuit of their group’s interests. Recognizing the parameters of different ideologies and how they serve different classes and groupings within those classes is critical to developing an ability to see beneath the surface to the essence of any social issue and social struggle. Put in more common parlance, there are vested interests, and those interests are expressed or articulated by the leading spokespeople for those groups. The bottom line, the fundamental division in our society, is between, on the one hand, those whose interests rest upon dominance and the drive towards monopolizing the society and planet’s resources and, on the other hand, those whose interests lie in the husbanding of those resources for the good of the whole rather than the part. The startling evidence of the neoliberals’ bankruptcy surrounds us everyday, and grows starker as time moves on. Their attacks on the people grow more vociferous and damaging by the day. The prospect of a radically different future from that spreading nightmare exists in embryonic form today.

Which path will be taken? The world awaits. The future beckons. Who will answer the call? (Emphasis added, p. 357)

Snyder’s idea that in politics we should all think non-ideologically and come to compromises based on non-ideological grounds overlooks the fact that a) obviously, the GOP is highly ideological and they aren’t going to stop being ideological because people like Snyder ask them to, and b) everyone, including Snyder himself, adheres to some ideology or another.

As I state in the passage above, ideology represents in the realm of ideas the material interests of different groups and classes. How could they not on a fundamental level? While it is true that there are people who adhere to ideologies that aren’t actually in their material interests (witness many in the Tea Parties who are not rich), this is because of the impact of the ideological hegemony (dominance) of the rich whose ideas are propagated so widely and intensively that many who don’t really have a material interest in following those ideas are won over to them, at least for a time. That time, of course, can last a lifetime…

What Snyder thinks of as non-ideological is actually an ideological commitment to the status quo, which is capitalism and imperialism. While the Democrats are not as rigid in the way that the GOP has obviously become, they are nonetheless just as ideological in their own way: they are committed to capitalism, to American Exceptionalism, and the ever rising prospects of prosperity for everyone (as if somehow capitalism could ever dispense with the working class and poverty and as if profit weren’t fundamentally on the backs of those that capitalism exploits). Anyone who dares to challenge the propriety of capitalism and the underlying logic of the market is considered far outside of the pale by the Democrats and not given a hearing. And Snyder is doing the same by claiming that Marxists’ ideas are bankrupt.

Snyder: Marxists and neoliberals agree that the state will eventually cease to matter.

First, it should be pointed out that Snyder is misreading what the neoliberals actually believe. He is taking their anti-governmental rhetoric on mere face value. Neoliberals condemn big government in their speeches and writings but they don’t actually operate that way in deed. They are in fact the biggest proponents of big government and Big Brother around, expanding money and personnel devoted to government’s coercive and surveillance apparatus relentlessly, ranging from the military budget to police and jails/prisons. Neoliberals furthermore aggressively employ the government and their connections to the government to foster and protect big business.

Ronald Reagan and his successors of both parties have been supposedly reducing government but have in reality presided over a vast expansion of government. To carry out this in a sleight of hand manner, they have privatized many functions that used to be governmental but the expenditures on these functions are still governmental, even if now the monies are going into the pockets of private businesses rather than governmental employees.

In trying to understand the neoliberal state, one at first comes up against a puzzle. On the one hand, the state seems to be shrinking. Many state functions are being increasingly farmed out to private entities, and some of the state’s traditional functions are being eliminated altogether. Public services such as the military, security, criminal justice, disaster preparation and relief, public education, infrastructure maintenance and development, information collection and dissemination, even voting machines and speeches in Congress are progressively being taken over by non-state actors.

On November 14, 2009, the New York Times, for example, revealed that more than a dozen congressional representatives of both parties delivered, orally and by submissions to the Congressional Record, speeches ghostwritten for them by lobbyists on the health care bill, the most contentious political issue of Obama’s first year in the presidency. The biotech firm Genentech, a subsidiary of drug giant Roche, tailored the text to appeal to the respective social bases of the GOP and the Democrats. A lobbyist is quoted in the story saying in response to this revelation: “This happens all the time. There’s nothing nefarious about it.”[i] A remarkable admission—it goes on all the time and there is nothing wrong with it—given the premise underpinning this brand of democracy in America: elected representatives are not supposed to be the literal mouthpieces of corporations.

Voting machine manufacturers bar public inspection of their internal operations on the grounds that such information—their tabulating of the votes—is proprietary. The sine qua non of democracy as most people understand it can be carried out behind closed doors; the people are not allowed to confirm that their votes are being counted properly. “Virtually any asset of service that a local government owns or provides has been privatized somewhere in the United States in some manner, including fire protection, police protection, waste water treatment, street lighting, tree trimming, snow removal, parking structures, railroads, hospitals, jails and even cemeteries.”[ii]

The second largest military force occupying Iraq after the 2003 US invasion is not another country; it is mercenary forces, in particular Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater. During the Bush/Cheney years, the operation of Walter Reed Army Medical Center was turned over to private interests, even though its operation had been less expensive under government auspices. The conditions there deteriorated atrociously upon this privatization. As reported upon by the Washington Post in early 2007:

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.[iii]

The management of prisons and of education has been increasingly outsourced to the private sector at both the federal and local levels. Dissemination of government information under Bush was turned over to private companies. Under the signboard of reducing government spending, the government has been outsourcing to private companies previous government activities so that it can claim to be reducing government funding. The GOP in particular has been doing this most aggressively to maintain its image as antigovernment.

Paradoxically, as the state seems to shrink because of privatization and outsourcing, it has been simultaneously expanding its social control activities and powers. This is evident in two respects. First, coercion and surveillance are being shared by the state with private entities—with the state’s blessings and encouragement. The state is, in a sense, deputizing segments of the society to act as arms of the state. Second, the state is magnifying its own coercive and surveillance apparatus and declaring itself less subject to “dilution” by civil liberties, the rule of law, or competition from civil society. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 175-6)

And here:

This transition to the privatized state has been accomplished through a combination of (a) subterfuge—much of the awarding of government contracts and services to private corporations has been out of the public eye; (b) overt, insistent, propaganda campaigns touting the supposed virtues of private business over state programs; and (c) outright fraud, accompanied at times by force.

In the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries and in the formerly socialist China, for example, state assets were appropriated by private capital through theft, forming the foundational assets for both criminal underworld enterprises and legitimate, latter-day robber baron billionaires. In Moscow today the neoliberal dystopia exists: those with money can get anything they want, including illicitly obtained human organs; the mafia runs wild; and the dispossessed suffer immensely. Moscow today has been compared by a number of observers to the American Wild West.

In the US, this shift has occurred through corrupt, bloated, over-budget sweetheart deals, with Halliburton being the poster child and Jack Abramoff and Bernard Madoff its most famous disciples. (GDS, p. 183)

Neoliberals’ anti-governmental rhetoric, which is advanced most vociferously by the GOP, with the Democrats accepting the basic premises of the Republicans, but putting it forward in slightly different language and policy, is aimed at attacking social services and programs and dismantling the Keynesian welfare state policies. The reason for this I would recommend readers read further in my book because it’s an involved story that deserves extensive exposition and analysis.

Genuine Marxists do believe that the state should eventually wither away. But their attitude towards government comes from an entirely different perspective than that of the neoliberals and they view this on an entirely different time scale. The differences in their positions could not be more profound.

Political power is exercised via both persuasion and coercion. The goal for those genuinely interested in popular rule should not be popular participation per se. The goal should be that there be authentic popular rule. The two are not synonymous and the latter cannot be achieved simply through mass voting. The path to authentic popular rule, therefore, does not involve handing over the key decisions to others. Instead it must involve the masses of people increasingly becoming engaged, informed, and involved.

How can the people exercise real political power over decisions that affect their society and world? Since representatives are a necessity for many decisions, the nature of such a real democracy would have to include at least two specific elements in order to amount to something more than what we ordinarily (or invariably) see in governments: first, the pay and privileges of representatives would have to be the same as that of ordinary citizens (so that the privilege of public service would be not one that can be pursued for personal gain); and second, the populace would have to be consistently well-informed about the cardinal issues of the society so that they could exercise choices sensibly rather than being objects to be manipulated. Both of these outcomes are unimaginable short of a revolutionary change in the society. This point bears repeating: short of a revolutionary reconstitution of the society that directly involves the masses of people in effecting such change, talk of democracy will carry as much real meaning and accurately describe the policy-making process as well as the myth of Santa Claus explains the appearance of gifts on Christmas morning. (GDS, pp. 251-2)

This brings me to the third assumption that Snyder asserts is shared by the Right and by Marxists:

Snyder: Neoliberals and Marxists believe that a vanguard of intellectuals is needed to bring about a utopia that can be known in advance.

First, as to the need for a vanguard: What is the opposite of recognizing that a vanguard (i.e., leadership) is necessary in society? No one is a leader?

Of course leadership is necessary. Leadership has always and everywhere been necessary in not only all human societies but in all species of animals that are social.

Snyder’s implied criticism here is that the explicit assertion by Lenin that a vanguard is necessary to lead a revolution and to further lead the revolutionary transformation of society after the revolution over a long stretch of generations is undemocratic and that the neoliberals/neocons are also anti-democratic in a similar fashion.

The question, however, is not whether there should be leadership or not. The question is really, what is the content of that leadership? Towards what ends is that leadership moving?

Why Democracy? To What Ends?

People should have a say-so over their lives and over their society. This is something with which most people, though by no means all, agree. If we assume that democracy— in this sense—is a good for this reason, then we still need to settle a corollary question before we can proceed. Is democracy an end in and of itself? Or is it best understood as a means to an end?[iv] Let me take the first instance first.

If democracy is an end in itself, then it does not matter how ill-informed the populace or what decision (wise or foolish, effective or ineffective) the populace arrives at. Participation is what matters, not the results of that participation. Participation is the result sought. As the saying goes: it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. The philosophical principle undergirding democracy as an end in itself is agnosticism: the view that truth is not knowable.[v] If truth is not knowable, and facts can all be disputed such that no decision can be made about their veracity, then it does not matter what one’s opinion is because we cannot determine what is real anyway. Hence, all opinions are equal because there is no independent criterion of truth.

I often pose this example in my university classes to illustrate this point: if democracy is an end in itself, shall we vote on what time it is? If mass participation were an end in itself, then what would have been the verdict on whether the earth was round or flat during the Middle Ages in Europe? If democracy is an end in itself, should surgeons about to perform a delicate procedure on someone’s brain poll the hospital staff and patients to decide what procedure is best? It does not take long before people all agree that expertise and knowledge make a big difference, and that at least some things are not and should not be subject to a vote.

This objection might be raised here: expertise of course is necessary and those with expertise should be given prominence for their views, but experts almost never agree and the decision should and must ultimately still be made by the populace; an informed populace is the key; the problem of lack of information or expertise can be addressed.

However, how is information communicated to the public, and which experts get to have their views aired? In a world without vested interests and differentials of power based on clashing material interests, information and expertise might be provided readily, extensively, and fairly to the public; however, we do not live in such a world. To get to a world such as that would have to involve a radical transformation of the economy. Political egalitarianism cannot be sensibly pursued whenever wider and ever-expanding economic inequality provides the driving logic for our economic system and political policy. To think otherwise is to deny the most obvious fact, demonstrated over and over throughout history: huge economic disparities produce political inequalities. The more unequal the economy becomes, the more unequal the public policies have been (they helped produce this economic inequality, after all) and the more unequal the public policies will therefore be (since the political system will adjust to the economic system more than the other way around). That is, unless some dramatic change that involves a fundamental reworking of the economic system’s dynamics occurs.

To overcome the expertise problem, some of democracy’s greatest defenders cite the American people’s inherent wisdom or goodness. Lincoln’s often-cited dictum is invoked in connection with this: “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Lincoln’s epigram is undoubtedly true. But fooling enough of the people enough of the time means that an unacceptable amount of fooling goes on. As the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrates, well over a million Iraqis and tens of thousands of Americans have died based on conscious lies by the Bush White House.[vi] This provides terrible testimony to the government and a compliant media’s ability to mislead the people. The White House’s lies were so ubiquitous and the media’s credulity and active participation in perpetuating those lies so great that even now a large percentage of the American people still believe incorrectly that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and many (mostly Fox News viewers and Rush Limbaugh dittoheads) think that WMD were found in Iraq. Lincoln’s dictum pales in power compared to this.

Moreover, a basic problem arises from the fact that the US is an imperialist superpower, indeed, the sole imperialist superpower. Imperialism produces dramatic inequalities in the world—in essence, the economic plunder of other countries. The American people benefit economically from these savage inequalities; one cannot help but benefit from them merely by living in the US. This means that absent a conscious decision to try to redress these gross inequalities, the spontaneous tendency among many Americans, particularly those who are more materially privileged by these inequities, is going to be to support policies that, at the very least, maintain these inequities, and at worse, exacerbate them. You do not have to be an evil, conscienceless person. You merely have to do what comes naturally. You just have to follow the path of least resistance.

Thus the inherent wisdom or goodness of the American people—to whatever degree it exists—is subject to this ineluctable material fact. Relying on the people’s wisdom/goodness means relying on a population that is vulnerable in substantial degree to political leaders who play upon Americans’ fears of terrorism, promote ethnocentrism, and expand and intensify the tendencies of a populace to spontaneously favor what benefits them personally in the narrowest sense. The social base for the politics of plunder and domination of other countries exists in the US for material reasons. The social base is not itself the source of such politics (elites are the source), but the social base constitutes the fraction of the population for whom such politics resonate most strongly.

As I discuss in Chapter Six in greater detail, the organs of public opinion making are increasingly concentrated in smaller and smaller numbers of hands, and the corresponding and related increasing concentration of wealth in fewer hands whose interests are increasingly at odds with transparency in the political and economic arenas means that an informed citizenry continues to diminish, rather like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat’s disappearing body, with only the smile remaining, and the smile itself now fading away as well. (GDS, pp. 253-254)

The character of a truly free and fair society would be one in which a constant wrangling over what is true would go on and in which leadership, where it is being exercised properly, is seeking to foster that wrangling rather than impose itself as the monopolists over truth.

Science has advanced over the centuries by observation and systematic investigation and testing, trial and error. From that process it has come to recognize certain truths about physical reality such as that E = mc2 .  Sociology, the discipline that I am from, has also come to recognize and is in fact founded upon the understanding that humans are first and foremost social beings and that the reason why there is a certain amount of predictability in human behavior is because people largely respond to social norms/expectations/social rules. Society and social behavior, in other words, are not primarily the product of discrete, autonomous individuals but social creatures responding to social cues and social necessities. As I state in the Preface to Globalization and the Demolition of Society, recounting the key themes in the book:

Humans are not first and foremost individuals. Everyone and everything that exists does so only in relationship to other beings and to other things. Individuals and groups, in particular, are not separate from and opposed to each other but in fact different expressions of a single integrated process. Individuals cannot accomplish what they do without group support and group sustenance; groups, in turn, rely upon individual leaders to organize the group and thereby advance the groups’ interests. We are not fundamentally solitary, autonomous, and exclusively self-interested individuals driven to maximize personal material rewards; we are beings who are primarily shaped by our relationships, especially those generated by our society’s political and economic structures. Individuals do not principally give systems the character that those systems possess; systems and structures principally shape individuals’ behavior.

Genuine freedom does not and cannot come from ignoring one’s obligations to other people and by spurning necessity and material reality. Freedom can only exist on the basis of first recognizing and coping with necessity and then acting to transform it. Moreover, material wealth is not the proper measure of the worth of a person or a society. The pursuit of individual—and corporate—opulence and the downgrading or outright dismissal of the intimate and indispensible connection we have to each other and to the earth are the road to catastrophe for the people and for our planet.

In sum, neoliberals and genuine Marxists could not be more different in their values, philosophy, ideology, and practice.



[i] One of these representatives was Joe Wilson of South Carolina, infamous for blurting out “You lie!” to President Obama during Obama’s health care address to Congress in 2009. Robert Pear, “In House, Many Spoke With One Voice: Lobbyists’,” NYTimes.com, November 14, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/us/politics/15health.html, accessed November 14, 2009.

[ii] Lewis D. Soloman, Reflections on the Future of Business Organizations, 20 Cardozo L. Rev. 1213, 1216 (1999).

[iii] Dana Priest and Anne Hull, “Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army’s Top Medical Facility,” WashingtonPost.com, February 18, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/17/AR2007021701172.html, accessed July 30, 2010.

[iv] I owe this distinction to the work of Bob Avakian. See Ibid.

[v] Agnosticism comes from religion originally and refers to those who are undecided on the existence or nonexistence of God. Agnostics think that it is not possible to determine whether God exists or not. See Ibid.

[vi] Armen Keteylan, “VA Hid Suicide Risk, Internal E-Mails Show,” CBSNews.com, April 21, 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/04/21/cbsnews_investigates/main4032921.shtml, accessed June 1, 2008.


Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo


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