This essay originally appeared in Front Page Magazine in 1999. In light of the issue’s ongoing relevance, we present a new version here.
The Communist Manifesto is probably the only Marxist text that most of his millions of followers have actually read. During the last century, his disciples went about killing a hundred million people in attempts to create the utopia he promised, but these disasters have had no effect on the fantasy that inspired them. It is almost a decade since the collapse of the empires that Marxists built, but it is already evident that its lessons have not been learned. Today, few people outside the halls of academia may think of themselves as Marxists, or publicly admit to pursuing socialist illusions. But behind protective labels like “populist,” “progressive” and even “liberal,” the old socialist left is alive and powerful, and in steady pursuit of its destructive agendas.
Three ideas advanced in Marx’s famous tract make up the core of this contemporary leftist faith. The first and most important is the belief that modern, secular, democratic societies are ruled by oppressive “alien powers” (as Marx referred to them). In Marx’s vision, even though industrial nations had dethroned their hereditary rulers and vested sovereignty in the people, this did not mean they were actually free. Though liberated from serfdom, workers were now “wage-slaves,” chained to capital as effectively as they had been chained to the land under feudalism. According to Marx and his disciples, capital is the alien power that rules the modern world in the same way landed aristocracies presided over it in the past. Electoral democracies are fictions within the framework of capitalist societies. Behind democratic façade the capitalist “ruling classes” control political outcomes and keep their citizens effectively in chains.
The second idea of the Manifesto flows naturally from the first: politics is war conducted by other means, and specifically class war. The third idea is that victory in this class war leads to a world without chains – a rupture with the entire history of humanity’s enthrallment to alien powers.
In response to the collapse of communism, and to distance itself from that failure, the modern left has revised its vocabulary and expanded the notion of alien powers to include race and gender. The target is rarely described anymore as a “ruling class,” but as a trinity of oppressors: a class-race-and-gender caste. In the war against these hierarchies, race carries the greatest moral weight and political impact. Consequently, racial grievance is the spearhead of the modern radical cause, although gender and class grievances are not far behind. Oppressed blacks and their grievances are deployed to undermine the bulwarks of the social order. And they are effective. In the past several decades, racial preferences to redress past injustices have been the most successful elements of the assaults on the standards and practices of the old order based on individual rights and equality before the law.
The left’s stated goal of subverting these classical liberal norms is to “level the playing field,” which is a precise translation of Marx’s classless society into politically palatable terms. According to those who hold this view, the Civil Rights Acts failed to achieve “real” equality, meaning an equality of results – which is the communist ideal. Previous civil rights reforms had focused on making institutional processes fair, and eliminating legal barriers to political power, education and jobs – in other words, to providing individual opportunity. For Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement he led, leveling the playing field meant extending to blacks the constitutional protections accorded to all Americans; making all citizens, regardless of color, equal before the law. It meant creating neutral rules that rendered color or ethnicity irrelevant to the competitions of civic and economic life. This was King’s idea of a “color-blind” society. Color would no longer affect individual outcomes, certainly not through the agency of the state. In King’s vision, the playing field would be level once government ceased to play racial favorites, as was the practice in the segregated South.
But the elimination of racial barriers through the passage of the Civil Rights Acts did not lead to equal results. To the left, whose collectivist vision discounted individual achievement and individual failure, this could only be explained by the persistence of covert prejudice – “institutional racism,” which is the contemporary left’s version of Marx’s alien power. According to the left, procedural fairness, the original goal of civil rights reforms, was actually a mask for an “institutional bias” that preserved an unequal status quo. Just as Marx had derided “bourgeois democracy” as a political smokescreen to preserve the power of a ruling class, so the post-King civil rights left dismissed equality of opportunity as a smokescreen to preserve the superior position of a dominant race. The term “white supremacy,” favored by racist demagogues like Louis Farrakhan, now became a term loosely applied by broad sectors of the left.
According to the new ideologues, educational admissions tests, for example, are culturally rigged to appear neutral while in practice they favor applicants of the dominant color. If facts alone were the issue, this claim would be easily refuted. Asian immigrants, who struggle with both a foreign language and an alien culture, consistently score in the highest ranges on standardized tests, surpassing whites and gaining admission to the best schools available. In fact, affirmative-action measures in education are designed by the left to limit opportunities for Asian minorities, while favoring low-scoring Hispanics and blacks. But where ideology is concerned, facts do not matter. Within the ideology, only one explanation is possible for persistent inequalities: the hierarchies of race, class and gender, and their system of oppression.
When the left demands a level playing field, it is not interested in neutral rules and equitable standards. It is interested in combating the alien powers of the race-class-gender hierarchy and their alleged oppression of blacks and other designated minorities – the new stand-ins for Marx’s proletarians. The left is oblivious to the experience of persecuted minorities who have been successful, such as Asians, Armenians, and Jews. It is not interested in the cultural factors that shape individual choices. It is not interested in individuals and their freedom, and therefore in securing an equitable process. It is only rhetorically interested even in equal results. What drives the left is its quest for the power to fundamentally reshape the social order by state fiat, to enforce its own prejudices and preferences, which it calls “social justice.”
If the left actually set out to achieve an equality of results, it would have to invade and then control every inch of the private sphere. Consider what it would mean to implement this demand. It is true that 40 percent of America’s African-American children are poor, a condition that handicaps them in any educational competition. The left accounts for the resultant disparities by its mythical construct, “institutional racism,” which allegedly blocks their way. Since the fault is “institutional” rather than individual, the remedy is institutional reform: rigging educational and performance standards to force an equality that doesn’t currently exist.