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.
But the primary reason that African-American children are poor is cultural, not institutional or racial. If it were racial, there would be no (or only a small) black middle class, whereas the black middle class is now the majority of the black population. Statistically speaking, a child born into a single-parent family is five times more likely to be poor than a child born into a family with two parents, regardless of race. Eighty-five percent of African-American children in living in poverty grow up in single-parent households. It is that circumstance – and not “institutional racism” – which actually handicaps a portion of the African-American population and denies them opportunity. By the time such children are ready to compete, they may suffer from dysfunctional behaviors, or have developed disabling habits, or have internalized attitudes hostile to academic achievement, or simply lack the supportive environment that a middle-class, two-parent home provides. The excessive dropout rates among students who take advantage of racial preferences to overcome these inequalities are the statistical indicators that these parenting handicaps are real, and that no rigging of institutional standards can make up for them.
In the face of such realities, what can “leveling the playing field” mean? How can the state make up for the irresponsible behaviors and mistakes of the biological parents? By forcing them to get married? By compelling them to look after their children? By requiring them to teach their offspring to study hard and not be self-abusive? Is this even practical? Is it wise? Should the state become a Big Brother for those who fall behind, taking over their lives and curtailing their individual freedom? Yet that is the logical inference of the proposals of the left.
To achieve the benevolent outcomes that progressives promise would require a government both omniscient and wise, a utopia that has never existed. Such a state would have to mandate comprehensive transfers of opportunity and wealth, and would conduct a relentless battle against human nature to overcome the resistance to its impositions by those unwilling to give up their liberty or the fruits of their labor. The call to level the playing field, pushed to its unavoidable conclusion, is a call for the systematic subversion of American individualism and democracy, the destruction of individual freedom and the creation of a totalitarian state. The level playing field requires a totalitarian state to eliminate the disparities resulting from human nature and private circumstance. Yet the totalitarian state is itself a hierarchy of forbidding dimensions.
In the aftermath of communism’s collapse, such a prospect may seem remote, which is why the dangers inherent in these progressive reforms are often discounted. But the efforts to undermine the system of individual rights are already well advanced. Moreover, it is the nihilistic ambition behind the radical assault that presents the most immediate threat. For it is possible to destroy the foundations of social trust without establishing a socially viable alternative. Underlying the idea of racial preferences is a corrosive premise that the white majority is fundamentally racist and cannot be fair. For those who embrace the idea, the institutions, traditions, rules and standards that white majorities have arrived at over the course of centuries merit no respect. Affirmative-action race preferences are an assault on the very system of economic and legal neutrality that underpins a pluralistic democracy. By denigrating the rule of law as a mask for injustice and oppression, the left undermines the very system that makes democracy – and racial equality – possible.
To support race preferences, the left demands that government abandon the principle of “color-blindness” and equal protection under the laws. It does so in the name of opening doors that allegedly remain closed, since it claims that minorities are still “excluded” or “locked out.” But its only evidence for this is statistics that show disparities between minority representation in certain jobs or educational institutions and their representation in the population at large. The villain, according to the left, is the invisible power called “institutional racism.” (It has to be invisible because actual discrimination against minorities is already outlawed.)
No one seriously contends that admissions officers at America’s elite colleges are racists. In fact, college admissions offices are normally desperate to recruit as many eligible minority applicants as they can, offering them large financial rewards for being “underrepresented.” As a result of California ballot Proposition 209, the University of California system is one of the few institutions legally required to eliminate the racial preferences it put in place for minorities. Yet the UC system is still spending $160 million annually on outreach programs designed to increase minority enrollments. Since this is the case, it is hard not to conclude that any deficiencies in minority admissions are the result of individual failures to meet academic standards.
The idea that America is a country ruled by racist precepts and powers, as leftists claim, is absurd. If African Americans are oppressed, what would explain the desire of so many blacks to come to America’s shores and – in the case of Haitians – to risk their lives in doing so? Are they longing to subject themselves to a master race? In fact, the reason they want so desperately to immigrate is that in America they have more rights, more opportunities, more cultural privileges, and more social power than they do åin countries like Haiti, which has been independent and run by black governments for more than two hundred years. This difference is attributable to America’s pluralistic democracy. Because culture and not race is the determinant factor, Haitian-Americans are freer and more privileged in America than they would be in any black-run country in the world.
The civil rights movement was supported by the vast majority of the American people, including federal law enforcement and the military. Since those victories were achieved, public-opinion surveys have shown a dramatic increase in the goodwill of whites generally towards the African-American minority, and an equally precipitous decline in attitudes that could reasonably be called bigoted. Large increases in the number of black officials elected by majority white constituencies, and huge income transfers authorized by a predominantly white electorate to black communities, provide solid empirical evidence of these attitudinal changes. There would be no affirmative-action preferences at all if not for the support of white officials elected by white voters seeking racial fairness.
The justification advanced for racial preferences is illogical on its face. The white majority that allegedly cannot be fair in the society at large is also a white majority in government. If government programs are required to compel whites to be fair, how can whites have designed and instituted those same programs? If the white majority is racist, how can the government it dominates be relied on to redress racial grievances? The question is absurd because the premise is absurd. In fact, it is America’s white racial majority that ended slavery, outlawed discrimination, funded massive welfare programs that benefited inner-city blacks, and created the very affirmative-action policies that are allegedly necessary to force them to be fair.
The end result of racial-preference policies masquerading as affirmative action is also perverse. In the long run, subverting the state’s neutrality by eliminating the principle of color-blindness will work against minorities like African Americans. Groups that are numerically larger are bound to benefit more from political redistribution schemes than smaller ones. Over time, as the displacement of blacks by Latinos in urban centers like Los Angeles already makes clear, the racial spoils system will transform itself into a system that locks blacks out.
Civil rights is just one battlefield in the left’s war against America. The big guns of this war are directed from the centers of intellect in the university, where tenured radicals have created an anti-American culture and used the academic curriculum to indoctrinate broad sections of the nation’s youth. The thrust of this curriculum was summarized in a text by a constitutional law professor at Georgetown, one of America’s elite universities: “The political history of the United States … is in large measure a history of almost unthinkable brutality toward slaves, genocidal hatred of Native Americans, racist devaluation of nonwhites and nonwhite cultures, sexist devaluation of women, and a less than admirable attitude of submissiveness to the authority of unworthy leaders in all spheres of government and public life.”
Of course, the political history of the United States is exactly the reverse. It is in large measure the history of a nation that led the world in eliminating slavery, in accommodating peoples it had previously defeated, in elevating nonwhites to a position of dignity and respect, in promoting opportunities and rights for women, and in fostering a healthy skepticism towards unworthy leaders and towards the dangers inherent in government itself. This view of American history is now called “conservative,” but only because leftists currently shape the political language of liberalism and have been able to redefine the terms of the political debate. There is nothing “liberal” about people who deny the American narrative as a narrative of freedom, or who promote class, race, and gender war in the name of social progress. But leftists have successfully created a political vocabulary in which “racist” describes those who defend the constitutional framework of individual rights, and attempt to guard it against the nihilistic advocates of a political bad faith.
David Horowitz is the president of the David Horowitz Freedom Center.