Marxism Misunderstood

American Marxism
by Mark R. Levin
Threshold Editions
320 pp., $28.00

There are thoughtful books on how American elite culture has been captured by an ideological cult dedicated to dismantling traditional virtues while advocating for a totalitarian moral utopia. Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening, Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement, and Mark Mitchell’s Power and Purity are learned critical introductions to this subject. But the sales of those three titles together add up to a mere fraction of what talk-radio star Mark Levin has banked with the publication of his American Marxism. That is a dispiriting statement about the reading culture of American conservatives.

When I told a friend that I was reviewing this book and that I considered it to be of extremely poor quality, he accused me of disloyalty to the team: “C’mon, he’s on the right, and his heart is in the right place, cut him some slack!” my friend admonished.

I have some sympathy with that view, but there is a fatal flaw in the reasoning. The problem is that Levin’s book is so far off the mark that it can only make its readers less prepared to handle what the “American Marxists” of the title are bringing our way. If we want to effectively oppose a thing, we must first know what it is. Levin, however, is deeply confused about the nature of Marxism, even if his blustering style might succeed at convincing some readers that he has expertise rather than just empty swagger.

Stylistically, the book is an atrocity. Much of it consists of whole paragraphs nearly entirely made up of quotations from other writers, with little or no new material or commentary added. And these many long passages are not set off in block quotations, as they should be, which omission makes it all the easier to miss just how frequently Levin relies on the words of others. His style is indistinguishable from that of the undergraduate student who labors under the wrongheaded idea that citing other writers is the way to show mastery. One certainly can fill up the page much more quickly when one is merely transcribing what someone else has already composed, but this writerly laziness does nothing to develop the reader’s trust. I am unable to fathom, given his prose style, how Levin imagines he can be taken seriously as a historian of ideas.

And just what does Levin express with this clumsy writing? A few mundane truths along with constant overreaches and jejune errors. Unfortunately, the book is full of evidence that Levin doesn’t know very well the subject he has taken on. Many of his readers will come to this book equally uneducated on the relevant terms. They will go away from it believing they have learned something useful. They will be mistaken.

For example, in a single paragraph, the labor theory of value is decimated and defeated, which will come as a great relief, no doubt, to Levin’s readers. They are thereby absolved of any responsibility to know anything about the ongoing debates in economic theory on the highly abstract category of value. In that same short paragraph where he completes the work of economic theory, the devastatingly efficient Levin also definitively refutes the idea that any laborer has ever been exploited under capitalism. Both theoretical economists and social historians may close up shop, now that this master thinker has conquered their fields.

Moving on to current events, Levin describes Black Lives Matter as a “Marxist anarchist” group. Perhaps they have claimed such a thing about themselves. They are certainly uninformed about the history of Western political ideologies, so such a misnomer is far from impossible. But any competent Marxist understands that Marx’s worldview and that of the anarchists are fundamentally incompatible. Any serious critic of Marxism and anarchism should certainly know this, too.

Marx spent much time aggressively denouncing the anarchists of his day. Mikhail Bakunin, who was influential in European revolutionary circles in the mid-19th century, was described by Marx as “devoid of all theoretical knowledge.” And Lenin was still more antagonistic to anarchism. He referred to it contemptuously as “the psychology of the unsettled intellectual or the vagabond and not of the proletarian.”

The incompatibility of the two political philosophies—Marxism and anarchism—has to do with their opposite views on the organizational forms and composition of the revolutionary movements they desired. Marxists saw the organized industrial working class as the agent of revolution. The state was ultimately to be destroyed, but it would need to be operational for a time in the dictatorship of the proletariat until capitalist society had been wholly transformed. Anarchists rejected the centrality of the working class. They focused instead on “propagandists of the deed” drawn from the alienated middle class and underclass. These radicals would destroy capitalism not by seizing the factories and the state, but through violent uprising and terrorism. They championed spontaneity, while the Marxists preached party discipline and organization. Both philosophies fail when faced with the crude facts of reality, but a “Marxist anarchist” is a contradiction in terms.

In another section of the book, Levin crudely denounces social movement theory as effectively Marxist. But social movement theory is part of the social-scientific effort to understand the mechanics of social movements: why they happen, when they happen, and under what circumstances they experience success or failure. Such theories can be useful in studying not only movements of the left, such as BLM, but also those on the right. For example, the Make America Great Again movement, which then-candidate Trump created with his campaign, is amenable to interpretation by way of such theories. But Levin is minimally interested in understanding social movements. It is the denunciation of those movements he opposes that is the point of his book.

So, what important things do Levin’s readers fail to learn from his book? One thing would be that the woke movement facing us is not actually Marxist and that certain insights from Marxism may even help us understand and defeat it. Marxism sees domination and exploitation as fundamental matters of the conflict between socio-economic classes. All other forms of hierarchy—based on ethnicity or race, gender or sex, sexual preference, religion, or anything else—are reducible to the primary mechanism of power. And power is based on the simple matter of whether you are a member of the class that owns the means of production or a member of the class that does not and therefore must, in order to live, sell your labor on a market controlled by the owners.

Wokeism rejects the Marxian principle of socioeconomic class as the only real structure of domination because that perception gets in the way of the woke desire to babble endlessly about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the rest of the “phobia” lexicon. This woke anti-Marxism is a boon to the economic elites, who provide the loudest megaphones for the preaching of the new revolutionary ideology. They thereby pretend to be critics of power while they wield it unchallenged. Marxism offers tools for the critique of those who objectively sit at the top of a social class hierarchy but cynically claim solidarity with the “oppressed,” while giving up none of their own real power.

Levin seems not to know that the 1619 Project he rightly criticizes has been subjected to a more witheringly pointed attack by a group of Trotskyist Marxists in a recent book, The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History. The mere existence of that book disproves Levin’s basic thesis—that wokeism is a kind of Marxism.

In recognition of my friend’s chiding about conservative team spirit, let me not end this review without at least a few guarded positive observations. Levin’s commentary on contemporary journalism as weakly masked activism is occasionally insightful, and the book’s closing chapter offers useful practical strategies for resisting leftist dominance. I agree with Levin that the right needs to adopt some of the left’s effective techniques. Boycotting companies that parade ideology along with their products would bring to bear pressure that those companies could not easily overlook. Alternative educational institutions are also becoming increasingly necessary, Levin rightly notes, given the utter colonization of the established public institutions by ideologues of the left.

Such alternative institutions, however, will do well not to put Levin’s book on the curriculum, for these few useful bits cannot redeem such a faulty work. American Marxism misinforms its readers, and its broad readership means the fallacies it preaches will be seeded widely. It presents an easy target for its critics on the left, who will find no shortage of falsehoods in its pages to attack. In doing so, they can purport that any attempt to analyze their own efforts to control American culture and politics is, by way of association, as misguided and grossly inaccurate as Levin’s. In these ways, American Marxism makes a considerable material contribution to the efforts of the radicals it wants to oppose.

Top image: A mural of the other “Marx,” Groucho (Daniel Villafruela / via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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