Socialism is cool again in America, but it’s not your father’s socialism. It is no longer “the rival but the patsy of state capitalism,” as Nathan Pinkoski writes in a penetrating article in Law & Liberty entitled “The Strange Rise of Bourgeois Bolshevism.” The villain of this new socialism “is not the bourgeois but the white heterosexual American Christian male.”
“Self-styled American socialists,” Pinkoski observes, “define socialism not by government control of the economy or by state ownership of the means of production, but rather in terms of an open-ended commitment to equality.” And, in the current cult of victimhood, the “crown of thorns” moves from one designated victim group to the next.
Pinkoski correctly points out that the present focus on socialism has nothing to do with traditional Marxism. Today’s left stresses cultural transformation and the derailment of the nuclear family rather than socioeconomic changes. Economic socialism enters the picture almost as an afterthought, which even a supposedly sworn enemy of capitalism like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may grasp when she insists that the greatest danger facing us is “fascism.”
Fascism, as she uses the word, is of course code for the failure to push multiculturalism far enough. Until the recent cross-country riots, the elites of the left who pay lip service to multiculturalism, such as CNN’s Jeff Zucker, would not have to worry that Antifa would be coming to confiscate or trash their property. The young activists were too busy beating up old white folks on street corners in Portland.
The culturally radicalized captains of corporate capitalism are in the vanguard of the intersectional left. As a mark of its commitment to the cause, investment bank Goldman Sachs is now forcing all employees to address each other in gender-neutral language. I have no idea how this lunacy represents Marxism or socialism. Pinkoski is correct in suggesting its energy is coming from elsewhere. Where to pinpoint that elsewhere is where I part company with Pinkoski. In my view, there is nothing “bourgeois” about the politics of Goldman-Sachs or The Washington Post because there’s nothing “bourgeois” about its participants.
The capitalism that Pinkoski is describing survived the dissolution of bourgeois civilization, just as European cathedrals and palaces survived the disappearance of monarchs and aristocrats. Just because someone is a stockbroker or government bureaucrat does not mean they represent the moral, social, and political position of the 19th- or early 20th-century bourgeois. Such a person is earning money and may even have income to spend on frills, but is not a stand-in for the bourgeois as Marx meant that term.
For example, a Jewish accountant or Chinese computer expert who gives money to Elizabeth Warren is not culturally interchangeable with a Presbyterian industrialist of the late 19th century simply because both have some wealth. Neither is Tesla executive Elon Musk, who imitates the behavior of the underclass by impregnating women to whom he is not married and confers weird names on his illegitimate offspring, a member of the same class as Henry Ford or Cornelius Vanderbilt.
In his picture of the bourgeoisie, Pinkoski dwells on members of that class who turned in a radical direction. These “bourgeois Bolsheviks” were supposedly held together by nothing stronger than raw financial interest and individual appetite.
Contrary to Pinkoski’s statement, which we are led to believe is taken from the French historian François Furet, the bourgeoisie most definitely is not a class “defined entirely by economics.” In interwar Italy, France, Spain, and Austria, the bourgeoisie were frequently drawn to fascist movements to save their societies from the Marxist left. Much of the American bourgeoisie rallied to the anti-New Deal right in hopes of preserving an older version of America and staying out of foreign wars.
Cultural and social characteristics, and not just bank balance statements, are highly relevant in determining who does or does not belong to an historic class. The moneyed advocates of gay marriage and transgendered rights do not carry on the traditions of those devout Christians who created industrial and financial wealth in earlier periods. Today, the alliance of American plutocrats with Cultural Marxists should cause no surprise. These wealthy radicals belong to our late modern age, not to an older ruling class. Even the nouveaux riches of the 19th century conformed to the standards of conduct that existed for what the Germans called “the class of property and education.” It was certainly not economics exclusively that determined the status of bourgeois gentlemen and bourgeois ladies, as I argue at length in After Liberalism (1999).
In any case, there were aristocratic defectors, not only bourgeois ones, who went over to the left. Members of the aristocracy supported the French Revolution, and others, who were part of the French Enlightenment, composed anticlerical and anti-monarchist tracts in the 18th century. In Hungary, Count Mihály Károly headed a radically leftist government after World War I that quickly fell to the even more radical Communists. Although Károly came from perhaps the most distinguished Hungarian noble family, his genealogy did not keep him from allying with socialists. In the same vein, Polish aristocrat Felix Dzerzhinsky headed the Soviet secret police, and the Russian noblewoman Alexandra Kollontai was a Marxist revolutionary theorist. No one should think that only the bourgeois have undergone radicalization.
Another questionable assumption in Pinkoski’s attempt to redefine Marxism in the current era is that the black civil rights movement was different in kind from later intersectional politics. Pinkoski complains that in our expanding victim cult we lost “the unique significance of its initial application to Black Americans.” This practice was “instrumentalized” and applied to less and less worthy recipients of victim status.
I beg to differ. The civil rights movement has everything to do with later political and cultural developments. The creation of antidiscrimination agencies at every level of government, the radicalization of the electorate, and the mobilization of progressives for ever-newer crusades against prejudice were all products of the U.S. civil rights movement that achieved landmark results in the 1960s and 1970s. Pinkoski laments that the emphasis on later crusades against discrimination shifted the focus away from the struggle against racism. Despite what he might like to think, black civil rights leaders have happily moved from one crusade to the next.
Certainly, some of their efforts at reform, such as abolishing Jim Crow laws, were in principle justified; and anti-colonialists may have been sometimes correct when they pointed out the abuses of European colonialism. But let us not pretend that we can separate the incidentally beneficial parts of radical transformation from its malign outcomes, and pass the rest off as entirely unintended or a mistake. The black civil rights movement and what it wrought led beyond the 1960s. Those who endorsed the first part of that process quite reasonably connect it to the neverending struggle for radical equality and cultural revolution that we are now experiencing.
[Image by Levin Holtkamp / CC BY-SA via wikimedia, resized]
Paul Gottfried is Editor in Chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.