(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, June 28.)
A significant anniversary passed recently with surprisingly little fanfare.
News stories marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx focused on the fawning tribute paid to him by the Chinese president Xi Jinping.
There was a large dollop of irony here, since the modern Chinese communist party is highly selective in its application of Marxism. It has combined Marxist-style political totalitarianism – brutal suppression of dissent and absolute obeisance to the party – with a largely unfettered capitalist-style economy.
There are few greater extremes of wealth and poverty than in China, a country that today boasts an estimated 250 billionaires – not exactly what Marx had in mind when he envisaged the glorious working-class revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
As an economic model, Marxism stands totally discredited. The few remaining outposts of communist ideology, such as North Korea and Cuba, are economic basket-cases, as well as notoriously repressive.
And of course Marxism’s record has been irrevocably blighted by two of the most monstrous figures in history, Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao – proud Marxists who carried out mass exterminations without blinking an eye.
In view of all this, it’s grimly ironic that a form of Marxism not only survives, but is rampant across the democratic Western world.
Some call it cultural Marxism, others neo-Marxism. However you choose to label it, it has perversely triumphed where Marx’s economic theories have deservedly been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Neo-Marxism draws partly on Marxist analysis but is equally influenced by a bunch of twisted 20th century French philosophers. It grows out of the assumption that Western civilisation, and all that goes with it, is fundamentally rotten and therefore must be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.
In the cockeyed illogic of the neo-Marxists, we should feel guilt and shame at having inherited a civilisation that has lifted untold millions of people out of poverty and introduced them to democratic government.
You can see Marx’s influence in neo-Marxism’s hostility to capitalism, its contempt for supposed bourgeois values – the family, for instance – and its emphasis on class and division.
But neo-Marxism takes classical Marxist analysis a whole lot further, examining every issue through the lenses not only of class but also of race, gender, sexual identity and any other potential point of difference that can be leveraged into a grievance.
It marches arm-in-arm with identity politics, seeing society not as a cohesive whole, sharing common interests and aspirations, but as a seething mass of oppressed minorities struggling for liberation – hence the ever-increasing number of aggrieved groups clamouring for special recognition. The result is polarisation and fragmentation.
Neo-Marxism also sets out to create a sense of continuing economic and social crisis, using this as justification for ever more intrusive state intervention and control. And it seeks to undermine our most basic understanding of human nature and society. How we see and interpret the world is dismissed by neo-Marxists as a social and political construct, a product of our conditioning.
Nothing is fixed, not even the sex we are born with, and nothing has any objective value. Every belief and every value, no matter how soundly based in human experience and observation, is up for attack.
Paradoxically, while the neo-Marxists assail some belief systems as oppressive – Christianity for example – they make excuses for others, such as Islam, although it’s infinitely more controlling. But don’t go looking for ideological consistency in neo-Marxism; you’d be wasting your time.
It all sounds laughable, but it’s taught in deadly earnest in our universities. Marxism may have been a wretched failure as an economic model, but the German radical Rudi Dutschke realised decades ago that its aims could be pursued by other means.
Inspired by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Dutschke came up with the idea of the “long march through the institutions”. Drawing an analogy with the famous march by Mao’s Red Army through China in the 1930s, Dutschke envisaged subverting society by infiltrating the institutions of higher learning.
He couldn’t have imagined how successful his stratagem would be. It works by targeting the impressionable young, many of whom have a natural idealistic desire to do the right thing, and few of whom have any knowledge of historic crimes against humanity perpetrated in pursuit of a Marxist utopia.
And how do the neo-Marxists respond when anyone resists their nihilistic theories? Typically, opposition is howled down as hate speech or met with sneering and ridicule. There’s no room in the neo-Marxist world for dissent or freedom of expression.
The tragedy is that neo-Marxism is triumphing because the institutions of liberal, democratic government are too weak, too naïve, too complacent or too uncertain of the worth of their own values to put up a fight.
Neo-Marxism has now extended its influence far beyond universities, reaching deep into government, schools, the media, the arts and even the churches. The result is a society that is losing confidence in itself, which is precisely the neo-Marxists’ aim – because a society that has lost confidence in itself is easier to intimidate and control.