See Disclaimer Below.

Archive for the ‘Western Philosophy’ Category

Review of Stephen Budiansky’s “Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.”

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on September 25, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in Los Angeles Review of Books.

Do we need another biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served nearly 30 years as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and nearly 20 years before that on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court? He has been the subject of numerous biographies since his death in 1935. We have not discovered new details about him since Harvard made his papers available to researchers in 1985, so why has Stephen Budiansky chosen to tell his story?

The answer may have to do with something Holmes said in The Common Law, his only book: “If truth were not often suggested by error, if old implements could not be adjusted to new uses, human progress would be slow. But scrutiny and revision are justified.”

Indeed, they are — both in the law and in the transmission of history. Holmes has been so singularly misunderstood by jurists and scholars that his life and thought require scrutiny and revision. Because his story is bound up with judicial methods and tenets — his opinions still cited regularly, by no less than the US Supreme Court as recently as this past term — we need to get him right, or at least “righter,” lest we fall into error, sending the path of the law in the wrong direction.

A veritable cottage industry of anti-Holmes invective has arisen on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. No one, it seems, of any political persuasion, wants to adopt Holmes. He’s a giant of the law with no champions or defenders.

For some critics, Holmes is the paragon of states’ rights and judicial restraint who upheld local laws authorizing the disenfranchisement of blacks (Giles v. Harris, 1903) and the compulsory sterilization of individuals whom the state deemed unfit (Buck v. Bell, 1927). This latter decision he announced with horrifying enthusiasm: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For other critics, he’s the prototypical progressive, decrying natural law, deferring to legislation that regulated economic activity, embracing an evolutionary view of law akin to living constitutionalism, and bequeathing most of his estate to the federal government.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than tendentious caricatures. Budiansky follows Frederic R. Kellogg — whose Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Legal Logic appeared last year — in reconsidering this irreducible man who came to be known as the Yankee from Olympus.

Not since Mark DeWolfe Howe’s two-volume (but unfinished) biography, The Proving Years and The Shaping Years, has any author so ably rendered Holmes’s wartime service. Budiansky devotes considerable attention to this period perhaps because it fundamentally changed Holmes. Before the war, Holmes, an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, gravitated toward abolitionism and volunteered to serve as a bodyguard for Wendell Phillips. He was appalled by a minstrel show he witnessed as a student. During the war, however, he “grew disdainful of the high-minded talk of people at home who did not grasp that any good the war might still accomplish was being threatened by the evil it had itself become.”

Holmes had “daddy issues” — who wouldn’t with a father like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the diminutive, gregarious, vainglorious, and sometimes obnoxious celebrity, physician, and author of the popular “Breakfast Table” series in The Atlantic Monthly? — that were exacerbated by the elder Holmes’s sanctimonious grandstanding about his noble, valiant son. For the aloof father, the son’s military service was a status marker. For the son, war was gruesome, fearsome, and real. The son despised the father’s flighty ignorance of the on-the-ground realities of bloody conflict.

Holmes fought alongside Copperheads as well, a fact that might have contributed to his skepticism about the motives of the war and the patriotic fervor in Boston. His friend and courageous comrade Henry Abbott — no fan of Lincoln — died at the Battle of the Wilderness in a manner that Budianksy calls “suicidal” rather than bold. The war and its carnage raised Holmes’s doubts regarding “the morally superior certainty that often went hand in hand with belief: he grew to distrust, and to detest, zealotry and causes of all kinds.”

This distrust — this cynicism about the human ability to know anything with absolute certainty — led Holmes as a judge to favor decentralization. He did not presume to understand from afar which rules and practices optimally regulated distant communities. Whatever legislation they enacted was for him presumptively valid, and he would not impose his preferences on their government. His disdain for his father’s moralizing, moreover, may have contributed to his formulation of the “bad man” theory of the law. “If you want to know the law and nothing else,” he wrote, “you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”

Budiansky’s treatment of Holmes’s experience as a trial judge — the Justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in those days presided over trials of first instance — is distinctive among the biographies. Budisansky avers,

[I]n his role as a trial justice, Holmes was on the sharp edge of the law, seeing and hearing firsthand all of the tangled dramas of the courtroom, sizing up the honesty of often conflicting witnesses, rendering decisions that had immediate and dramatic consequences — the breakup of families, financial ruin, even death — to the people standing right before him.

Holmes’s opinions as a US Supreme Court Justice have received much attention, but more interesting — perhaps because less known — are the salacious divorce cases and shocking murder trials he handled with acute sensitivity to evidence and testimony.

Budiansky skillfully summarizes Holmes’s almost 30-year tenure on the US Supreme Court, the era for which he is best known. He highlights Holmes’s dissenting opinions and his friendship with Justice Louis Brandeis, who was also willing to dissent from majority opinions — and with flair. For those looking for more detailed narratives about opinions Holmes authored as a Supreme Court Justice, other resources are available. Thomas Healy’s The Great Dissent, for example, dives more deeply into Holmes’s shifting positions on freedom of speech. Healy spends a whole book describing this jurisprudential development that Budiansky clears in one chapter.

Contemptuous of academics, Budiansky irrelevantly claims that “humorless moralizing is the predominant mode of thought in much of academia today.” He adds, “A more enduring fact about academic life is that taking on the great is the most reliable way for those who will never attain greatness themselves to gain attention for themselves.” Harsh words! Budianksy accuses the French historian Jules Michelet of rambling “on for pages, as only a French intellectual can.” Is this playful wit or spiteful animus? Is it even necessary?

Budiansky might have avoided occasional lapses had he consulted the academics he seems to despise. For instance, he asserts that the “common law in America traces its origins to the Middle Ages in England […] following the Norman invasion in 1066,” and that the “Normans brought with them a body of customary law that, under Henry II, was extended across England by judges of the King’s Bench who traveled on circuit to hold court.” This isn’t so. Writing in The Genius of the Common Law, Sir Frederick Pollock — “an English jurist,” in Budiansky’s words, “whose friendship with Holmes spanned sixty years” — mapped the roots of the common law “as far back as the customs of the Germanic tribes who confronted the Roman legions when Britain was still a Roman province and Celtic.” In other words, Budiansky is approximately one thousand years off. Rather than supplanting British customs, the Normans instituted new practices that complemented, absorbed, and blended with British customs.

The fact that Budiansky never mentions some of the most interesting researchers working on Holmes — Susan Haack, Seth Vannatta, and Catharine Wells come to mind — suggests willful ignorance, the deliberate avoidance of the latest scholarship. But to what end? For what reason?

It takes years of study to truly understand Holmes. The epigraph to Vannatta’s new edition, The Pragmatism and Prejudice of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., aptly encapsulates the complexity of Holmes’s thought with lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Budiansky recognizes, as others haven’t, that Holmes was large and contained multitudes. Holmes’s contradictions, if they are contradictions, might be explained by the famous dictum of his childhood hero, Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Holmes was consistently inconsistent. His mind was expansive, his reading habits extraordinary. How to categorize such a wide-ranging man? What were the defining features of his belief? Or did he, as Louis Menand has alleged, “lose his belief in beliefs”? Budiansky condenses Holmes’s philosophy into this helpful principle: “[T]hat none of us has all the answers; that perfection will never be found in the law as it is not to be found in life; but that its pursuit is still worth the effort, if only for the sake of giving our lives meaning.”

Holmes was intellectually humble, warning us against the complacency that attends certainty. Driving his methods was the sober awareness that he, or anyone for that matter, might be incorrect about some deep-seated conviction. During this time of polarized politics, self-righteous indignation, widespread incivility, and rancorous public discourse, we could learn from Holmes. How civil and respectful we could be if we all recognized that our cherished ideas and working paradigms might, at some level, be erroneous, if we were constantly mindful of our inevitable limitations, if we were searchers and seekers who refuse to accept, with utter finality, that we’ve figured it all out?


Teaching Humbly and Without Malice

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Politics, Western Philosophy on September 4, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here at Law & Liberty.

Russell Kirk has been dead now for over a quarter of a century, yet he remains the subject of student conferences across the United States and of the recent bestselling biography by Bradley J. Birzer. And, wonder of wonders, he’s out with a new book.

Actually, it’s a new edition of a 1957 book. Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism in fact was originally called The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatisma swipe at George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928). This invigorating primer on the history and characteristics of American conservatism is of course suitable for female and male audiences alike, hence Regnery’s revision of its title.

In 12 brisk chapters, Kirk addresses the following themes: the essence of conservatism, religious faith, conscience, individuality, family, community, just government, private property, power, education, permanence, and change. He concludes with the question: “What is the Republic?” His answer: “a commonwealth in which as many things as possible are left to private and local management; and in which the state, far from obliterating classes and voluntary associations and private rights, shelters and respects all these.”

Anyone familiar with Kirk will recognize in the opening chapter the “chief principles” of conservatism that in The Portable Conservative Reader (1982) and The Conservative Mind (1953) he condenses into six “canons.” These involve a recognition of moral laws derived from God, a celebration of variety and diversity over coerced uniformity, the pursuit of justice, the protection of private property, a skepticism of power and centralization, a reverence for custom and tradition, and the rejection of utopianism or political programs predicated on a belief in the perfectibility of man.

Combining a Disposition to Preserve with the Ability to Reform

At a time when conservatism stands in need of definition and direction, this book remains strikingly relevant. “We need to undertake,” Kirk admonishes his readers, “the conservative task of restoring in our generation an understanding of that freedom and that order which have expressed and encouraged our national genius.” Decades have passed since he penned these lines, yet the task remains.

Freedom and order aren’t the only seemingly incompatible concepts that Kirk reconciles. He balances liberty with duty and charity, and clarifies how conservatives can be both individualistic and communitarian at once. He explains why conservatives may embrace permanence and change without contradiction: Progress—“genuine progress”—develops “within the framework of tradition.” Moreover, “grand principles endure” while “their application . . . alters.” A conservative thus “combines a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform.”

Kirk targets, as well, the canard that conservatism is the greedy defense of capitalism, that the man or woman espousing conservative views is “a monster of selfishness” who is “morally impure, ruthless, and avaricious.” This caricature is still with us, though few thinking people would accept it as true anymore. After all, the Left dominates corporate America, Silicon Valley, Big Tech, Hollywood, higher education, and the mass media—with certain obvious exceptions. Commonsense conservatism, by contrast, flourishes in rural, agrarian America, in the heartland, in Southern states, in flyover territory, among blue-collar workers—not among the wealthy elites or rich CEOs. The idea that a small group of Randian, egomaniac “fat cats” controls American society is simply ridiculous. Were he alive today, Kirk wouldn’t have needed to refute such silly stereotypes.

He warns that “very powerful forces are at work to diminish the influence of the family among us, and even to destroy the family for all purposes except mere generation.” If he only knew. His treatment of the family seems dated by current standards—not because he embraced old-fashioned views but because the threats to the family that he predicted turned out to be greater than he could have imagined. He could not, for instance, foresee the redefinition of marriage that occurred through judicial opinions.

What, according to Kirk, is the purpose of formal education? Is it to equip students with the skills they need to excel in the workforce? To ensure that a democratic citizenry is sufficiently informed to refine and improve governing institutions? To bring about opportunities for historically marginalized or disenfranchised peoples? No. “The purpose of education,” he says, “is to develop the mental and moral faculties of the individual person, for the person’s own sake.” One doesn’t need to attend a university or earn a degree to fulfill this goal.

He Teaches Humbly and Without Malice

In our era of shouting pundits and social media sniping, Kirk’s mild manner, Victorian prose, and relaxed tone are charming reminders that, even when the stakes are high, we can be civil and reasonable toward detractors. He eviscerates sacred cows—for example, the notion of equality that, if instantiated, would lead to a “boring” world “in which everyone was the same”—cleverly yet with goodwill. The most egalitarian among us would entertain his controversial argument about equality because he does not provoke, incite, or inflame the passions. He teaches humbly and without malice.

Equality and diversity—ideals commonly associated with the Left—are, Kirk reminds us, incompatible to the extent that equality requires an eradication of the beautiful and remarkable distinctions that make each human being unique. The conservative is the true advocate of diversity, he points out, for it is the conservative who “desires to see the rich, invigorating, interesting variety of a society,” not to “pull everyone down to a dead level of equality.” Our equality before God and the law admits of natural and inevitable inequalities between people. Any other form of equality is the enemy of diversity.

If you believe the chief end of inquiry is to cultivate “human dignity, human personality, and human happiness,” and to understand and appreciate “the relationship between God and man,” then you’re a Kirkian conservative. All the weight of history, the entire strength of civilized society, depends on these for the preservation of freedom and order, which complement rather than oppose each other. In them, with God’s grace and providence, we put our hope for the future.

On Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 28, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here in the Journal of Faith and the Academy. A later version appeared here at Mises Wire.

Only the bold would title a book Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, has done just that, proposing that such failure has actually occurred and setting the unreasonable expectation that he can explain it. His operative premise is that liberalism so called created the conditions for its inevitable demise—that it is a self-consuming, self-defeating ideology only around 500 years old. (p. 1) “Liberalism has failed,” he declares triumphantly, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” (p.3)

Deneen doesn’t define the term liberalism, which isn’t in his index even though it’s littered throughout the book. I have it on reliable authority that one of the peer reviewers of the pre-published manuscript recommended publication to the editors at Yale University Press, provided that Deneen cogently defined liberalism and then cleaned up his sloppy references to it. Deneen ignored this advice, leaving the manuscript as is. His genealogy of liberalism is all the more problematic in light of this refusal to clarify.

Deneen presents a seeming paradox, namely that liberalism, under the banner of liberty and emancipation, produced their opposite: a vast, progressive, and coercive administrative state under which individuals have grown alienated, amoral, dependent, conditioned, and servile. “[T]he political project of liberalism,” he claims, “is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, and science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” (p.16)

One hears in this line echoes of Sartre, and indeed existentialism recommends a certain kind of individualism: the freedom of the rational agent, having been thrust into existence through no choice or fault of his own, to will his own meaning in an absurd and chaotic world. But existentialism is a different species of individualism from that which motivated Hobbes, Locke, and Mill: chief targets of Deneen’s ire. It’s true that Mill disliked dogmatic conformity to custom, but that is a customary—one might even say conservative—position to take. One must preserve, or conserve, after all, a critical mode for undertaking difficult questions without assuming to have already ascertained all suitable solutions. Every age must rework its approaches to perennial problems. There’s plenty of Mill to dislike from a Christian perspective, but his unlikable conclusions do not necessarily follow from his method of inquiry or openness to examining afresh the puzzles and issues with which our ancestors struggled.

The classical liberalism or libertarianism to which Christian individualists adhere promotes peace, cooperation, coordination, collaboration, community, stewardship, ingenuity, prosperity, dignity, knowledge, understanding, humility, virtuousness, creativity, justice, ingenuity, and more, taking as its starting point the dignity of every human person before both God and humanity. This individualism prospers in fundamentally conservative cultures and does not square with Deneen’s caricature of a caricature of a caricature of “liberal” individualism. This conservative individualism, a creature of classical liberalism, advocates liberty in order to free human beings to achieve their fullest potential, cultivate widespread ethics and morality, and improve lives and institutions through economic growth and development. And who can deny that the market economy with which it is bound up has, throughout the globe, given rise to improved living conditions, technological and medical advances, scientific discovery, intellectual curiosity, and industrial innovation?

Deneen wishes to rewind the clock, to recover the virtuous “self-governance” of the ancients that, he believes, was predicated on “the common good.” (p. 99) He sees in antiquity a social rootedness that aligns with Christianity as exemplified in the modern world by Amish communities.(p 106-107) His celebration of the traditional liberal arts adopts, he says, “a classical or Christian understanding of liberty” (p. 129) that emphasizes situated norms and localities, embedded cultures, and institutional continuities. This, however, is a curious take on antiquity, one that flies in the face of the anti-Christian features of classical and ancient thought extolled by Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and Julius Evola, who valued the pagan elements of “the ancient commendation of virtue” (p. 165) and disparaged the modern world as being too Christian.

Deneen is not interested in liberalisms, i.e., the multiplicity of concepts that fly under the banner of liberalism. He prefers casually to lump together varieties of generic ills (everything from industrialized agriculture to the infatuation with STEM, diversity, multiculturalism, materialism, and sexual autonomy) as products of the one common enemy of everything good that the classical and medieval periods had to offer. He then gives that enemy a name: liberalism. He would plunge us back, if not into antiquity, then into medieval tribalism, into periods in which the accused were tried by ordeal or combat, when blood oaths and kinship rather than trust, goodwill, or economic exchange determined one’s loyalties and allegiances.

It isn’t correct that liberalism “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community.” (p. 38) On the contrary, liberalism frees people from the tyrannical and institutionalized coercion that prevents them from enjoying local associations and relationships, including those in families, churches, schools, and communities. Liberalism properly understood empowers people to group themselves and define their experience by their own customs and mores. Thanks to liberalism, Deneen himself enjoys the freedom to critique the rapidly growing government that increasingly attempts to impose on him standards and rules at odds with his own.

Extending the individualism that characterized classical liberalism to twentieth century progressivism and modern identity politics, as Deneen does, is misguided. Modern identity politics is about collectivism in the name of self-definition, self-awareness, and self-constitution, about choosing which communities (Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, the Democratic Socialists of America, neo-Nazis, etc.) embrace the physical (e.g. ethnic or racial), ideological (e.g., pan-nationalist, Marxist, ecosocialist, feminist, anarcho-syndicalist, white supremacist), or normative characteristics (e.g. social justice or egalitarianism) around which one forms group associations.

The truth is that individualism thrives in moral, virtuous communities, and that the common good and group associations flourish in societies that acknowledge and understand the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. Of the interdependence and mutually strengthening nature of freedom and order, of the individual and society, Frank Meyer proclaimed that “truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”1 To those who insist that individualism is antithetical to religious belief, which is itself indispensable to conservatism and the common good, M. Stanton Evans stated, “affirmation of a transcendent order is not only compatible with individual autonomy, but the condition of it; […] a skeptical view of man’s nature [i.e., as inherently flawed and prone to sin] not only permits political liberty but demands it.”2

In a free society, entrepreneurs and producers are looking to others, to communities, to determine basic needs to satisfy. The rational self-interest motivating creativity and inventiveness is fundamentally about serving others more efficiently and effectively, about generating personal rewards, yes—but personal rewards for making life better and easier for others. The Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations is the same Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Human beings are wired both to look out for themselves, protecting their homes and loved ones, and to feel for, and empathize with, others. Beneficence and generosity are principal aspects of the liberal individualism that Deneen maligns.

The “second wave” of liberalism, in Deneen’s paradigm, is Progressivism. (p. 142) Yet modern progressivism and the Democratic Party have almost nothing to do with classical liberalism. Curiously and, I daresay, lazily, Deneen wishes to connect them. He cannot draw a clearly connecting line between them, however, because there isn’t one. The alleged connection is the supposed ambition “to liberate individuals from any arbitrary and unchosen relationships and remake the world into one in which those especially disposed to expressive individualism would thrive.” (p. 143–44) Should we take this assertion to mean that Deneen would prefer our relations and interactions to be arbitrarily coerced by a central power in a closed society where subordinated individuals habitually follow the unquestioned commands of established superiors?

F. A. Hayek once stated that, “[u]ntil the rise of socialism,” the opposite of conservatism was liberalism but that, in the United States, “the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.”3 Is Deneen so immersed in American culture that he cannot recognize this basic distinction? Deneen prizes the common, collective good as manifest in local communities, blaming rational self-interest for the allegedly universalizing tendency of liberalism to stamp out venerable customs and cultural norms. But he seems befuddled by the American taxonomy into which liberalism has fallen and would do well to revisit the works of Ludwig von Mises, who explained, “In the United States ‘liberal’ means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by authorities, i.e., socialism.”4

A comparison of Deneen’s speculative political theory and its abstract narrative of decline with Larry Siedentop’s deeply historical, ideologically neutral Inventing the Individual (Belknap / Harvard, 2014) reveals critical flaws in Deneen’s argument, starting with the proposition that the individualism key to liberalism is merely 500 years old. Siedentop undercuts the common portrayal of a medieval Europe gripped by poverty and superstition, monarchy and tyranny, widespread corruption and early death from which the Renaissance and, later, the Enlightenment allegedly rescued us. Siedentop sees, instead, the rise of Christianity—long before medievalism—as the cause of the rise of liberal individualism, which, in fact, has roots in the teachings of St. Paul and Jesus Christ. Whereas Deneen theorizes individualism as recent and anti-Christian, Siedentop traces its actual history as distinctly Christian, mapping its concrete features over time as it proliferated and supplanted ancient pagan cultures and customs that lacked a structural understanding of the dignity and primacy of the human person.

Siedentop attributes liberal individualism to Christianity; Deneen treats liberal individualism as inimical to Christianity. Both men cannot correct, at least not fully.

Walking back some of his grand claims, Deneen acknowledges in his final pages that liberalism, in certain manifestations, has in fact been around longer than 500 years and that it has much in common with Christianity:

While liberalism pretended to be a wholly new edifice that rejected the political architecture of all previous ages, it naturally drew upon long developments from antiquity to the late Middle Ages. A significant part of its appeal was not that it was something wholly new but that it drew upon deep reservoirs of belief and commitment. Ancient political philosophy was especially devoted to the question of how best to avoid the rise of tyranny, and how best to achieve the conditions of political liberty and self-governance. The basic terms that inform our political tradition—liberty, equality, dignity, justice, constitutionalism—are of ancient pedigree. The advent of Christianity, and its development in the now largely neglected political philosophy of the Middle Ages, emphasized the dignity of the individual, the concept of the person, the existence of rights and corresponding duties, the paramount importance of civil society and a multiplicity of associations, and the concept of limited government as the best means of forestalling the inevitable human temptation toward tyranny. Liberalism’s most basic appeal was not its rejection of the past but its reliance upon basic concepts that were foundational to the Western political identity. (pp. 184–85)

Forgive me for being confused, but I thought Deneen had set out to criticize liberalism and chart its failure, not to exalt or defend it, and certainly not to tie it to an ancient lineage associated with Christianity. This passage represents the discombobulation at the heart of Deneen’s book. Liberalism is not to blame for the massive administrative state and its networks of agents and functionaries that coerce local communities. Deneen is part of the problem he describes, championing ways of thinking and organizing human behavior that undercut his hope for the reawakening of traditional values and familial or neighborly bonds on local levels.

Deneen airs his opinions with such maddening certitude that he comes across as haughty and tendentious, as a zealously anti-libertarian manqué with an axe to grind. He lacks the delicacy and charity with which reasonable scholars of good faith approach their ideological opponents. He does not entertain the position of those who, like me, believe that liberal individualism is a necessary condition for the flourishing of local communities, the cultivation of virtue and responsibility, the forming of mediating institutions and bottom-up political associations, and the decentralization and diffusion of government power. He just can’t grasp the possibility that liberal individualism creates a vehicle for the preservation of custom and heritage, the family unit, and social bonds on local levels.

“Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism,” (p. 17) Deneen insists with little proof beyond his own ahistorical speculative theories—ironically given his call for “smaller, local forms of resistance: practicesmore than theories.” (pp. 19–20) Here’s an alternative proposition: liberal individualism and the community bonds it generates are best protected in a Christian society that is solemnly mindful of the fallibility of the human mind, the sinful tendencies of the human flesh, and the inevitable imperfection of human institutions.

Reading Why Liberalism Failed, one might come away questioning not whether Deneen is right, but whether he’s even sufficiently well-read in the history of liberalism to pass judgment on this wide-ranging, centuries-old school of philosophy that grew out of Christianity. What an unfortunate impression to impart for someone who writes with such flair about such important trends and figures. The reality, I think, is that Deneen is erudite and learned. His tendentious depiction of liberalism is thus disappointing for not putting his erudition and learning properly on display, for promoting an idiosyncratic take on liberalism that could ultimately undermine the classical and Christian commitment to liberty that he wishes to reinvigorate.

  • 1.Frank Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 12.
  • 2.M. Stanton Evans, “A Conservative Case for Freedom,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 86.
  • 3.F. A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition, Vol 17, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek(Routledge, 2013), p. 519.
  • 4.Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (1927) (The Foundation for Economic Education and Cobden Press, 2002) (Ralph Raico, trans.), pgs. xvi-xvii.

Michael Anton vs. Samuel Gregg

In America, Civics, Conservatism, Economics, History, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 17, 2019 at 6:45 am

El marxismo cultural es real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, The Academy, Western Philosophy on May 1, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Mises Institute. 

Samuel Moyn, un profesor de derecho de Yale, preguntórecientemente: “¿Qué es el “marxismo cultural?””. Su respuesta: “Nada de eso existe en realidad”. Moyn atribuye el término marxismo cultural a la “imaginación desenfrenada de la derecha”, afirmando que implica locas teorías de conspiración y se ha estado “filtrando durante años a través de las alcantarillas globales del odio”.

Alexander Zubatov, un abogado que escribió en Tabletrespondió que el marxismo cultural, “algo confuso y controvertido”, “ha estado en circulación durante más de cuarenta años”. Tiene, además, “usos perfectamente respetables fuera de la oscuridad, silos húmedos de la lejana derecha”. Concluyó que el marxismo cultural no es ni una “conspiración” ni una “fantasmagoría” de la mera derecha, sino un “programa intelectual coherente, una constelación de ideas peligrosas”.

En este debate, me pongo del lado de Zubatov. Este es el por qué.

A pesar de la desconcertante gama de controversias y significados que se le atribuyen, el marxismo cultural (el término y el movimiento) tiene una historia profunda y compleja en la teoría. La palabra “Teoría” (con una T mayúscula) es el encabezado general de la investigación dentro de las ramas interpretativas de las humanidades conocidas como estudios culturales y críticos, crítica literaria y teoría literaria, cada una de las cuales incluye una variedad de enfoques desde lo fenomenológico hasta el psicoanalítico. En los Estados Unidos, la Teoría se enseña y aplica comúnmente en los departamentos de inglés, aunque su influencia es perceptible en todas las humanidades.

Una breve genealogía de diferentes escuelas de Teoría, que se originó fuera de los departamentos de inglés, entre filósofos y sociólogos, por ejemplo, pero que se convirtió en parte del plan de estudios básico de los departamentos de inglés, muestra no solo que el marxismo cultural es un fenómeno identificable, sino que prolifera más allá de la academia.

Los estudiosos versados ​​en Teoría son razonablemente desconfiados de las representaciones crudas y tendenciosas de su campo. Sin embargo, estos campos conservan elementos del marxismo que, en mi opinión, requieren un mayor y sostenido escrutinio. Dadas las estimaciones de que el comunismo mató a más de 100 millones de personas, debemos discutir abierta y honestamente las corrientes del marxismo que atraviesan diferentes modos de interpretación y escuelas de pensamiento. Además, para evitar la complicidad, debemos preguntarnos si y por qué las ideas marxistas, aunque sean atenuadas, siguen motivando a los principales académicos y difundiéndose en la cultura más amplia.

Los departamentos ingleses surgieron en los Estados Unidos a fines del siglo XIX y principios del XX, lo que dio paso a estudios cada vez más profesionalizados de literatura y otras formas de expresión estética. A medida que el inglés se convirtió en una disciplina universitaria distinta con su propio plan de estudios, se alejó del estudio de la literatura británica y de las obras canónicas de la tradición occidental en la traducción, y hacia las filosofías que guían la interpretación textual.

Aunque una breve encuesta general de lo que se sigue puede no satisfacer a los que están en el campo, proporciona a los demás los antecedentes pertinentes.

La nueva crítica

La primera escuela importante que se estableció en los departamentos ingleses fue la Nueva Crítica. Su contraparte fue el formalismo ruso, caracterizado por figuras como Victor Shklovsky y Roman Jakobson, que intentaron distinguir los textos literarios de otros textos, examinando qué cualidades hacían que las representaciones escritas fueran poéticas, convincentes, originales o conmovedoras en lugar de meramente prácticas o utilitarias.

Una de esas cualidades fue la familiarización. La literatura, en otras palabras, desfamiliariza el lenguaje mediante el uso de sonido, sintaxis, metáfora, aliteración, asonancia y otros dispositivos retóricos.

La Nueva Crítica, que era principalmente pedagógica, enfatizaba la lectura atenta, manteniendo que los lectores que buscan un significado deben aislar el texto que se está considerando de las externalidades como la intención del autor, la biografía o el contexto histórico. Este método es similar al textualismo legal mediante el cual los jueces examinan estrictamente el lenguaje de un estatuto, no el historial o la intención legislativa, para interpretar la importancia o el significado de ese estatuto. Los “Nuevos Críticos” acuñaron el término “falacia intencional” para referirse a la búsqueda del significado de un texto en cualquier parte, excepto en el texto mismo. La Nueva Crítica está asociada con John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards y T. S. Eliot. En cierto modo, todas las escuelas de teoría posteriores son respuestas o reacciones a la Nueva Crítica.

Estructuralismo y postestructuralismo

El estructuralismo impregnó los círculos intelectuales franceses en los años sesenta. A través del estructuralismo, pensadores como Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva y Louis Althusser importaron la política izquierdista en el estudio de los textos literarios. El estructuralismo está arraigado en la lingüística de Ferdinand de Saussure, un lingüista suizo que observó cómo los signos lingüísticos se diferencian dentro de un sistema de lenguaje. Cuando decimos o escribimos algo, lo hacemos de acuerdo con las reglas y convenciones en las que también opera nuestra audiencia anticipada. El orden implícito que utilizamos y comunicamos es la “estructura” a la que se hace referencia en el estructuralismo.

El antropólogo francés Claude Levi-Strauss extendió las ideas de Saussure sobre el signo lingüístico a la cultura, argumentando que las creencias, los valores y los rasgos característicos de un grupo social funcionan de acuerdo con un conjunto de reglas tácitamente conocidas. Estas estructuras son el “discurso”, un término que abarca las normas culturales y no solo las prácticas lingüísticas.

Del estructuralismo y el postestructuralismo surgió el marxismo estructural, una escuela de pensamiento vinculada a Althusser que analiza el papel del estado para perpetuar el dominio de la clase dominante, los capitalistas.

El marxismo y el neomarxismo

En las décadas de 1930 y 1940, la Escuela de Frankfurt popularizó el tipo de trabajo generalmente etiquetado como “marxismo cultural”. Las figuras involucradas o asociadas con esta escuela incluyen a Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse y Walter Benjamin. Estos hombres revisaron, replantearon y extendieron el marxismo clásico al enfatizar la cultura y la ideología, incorporando ideas de campos emergentes como el psicoanálisis e investigando el auge de los medios de comunicación y la cultura de masas.

Insatisfechos con el determinismo económico y la coherencia ilusoria del materialismo histórico, y hartados por los fracasos de los gobiernos socialistas y comunistas, estos pensadores reformularon las tácticas y las premisas marxistas a su manera, sin repudiar por completo los diseños o ambiciones marxistas.

A partir de los años sesenta y setenta, académicos como Terry Eagleton y Fredric Jameson fueron explícitos al abrazar el marxismo. Rechazaron los enfoques de la Nueva Crítica que separaban la literatura de la cultura, enfatizando que la literatura reflejaba los intereses económicos y de clase, las estructuras políticas y sociales y el poder. En consecuencia, consideraron cómo los textos literarios reproducían (o socavaban) las estructuras y condiciones culturales o económicas.

Slavoj Žižek podría decirse que ha hecho más que cualquier miembro de la Escuela de Frankfurt para integrar el psicoanálisis en las variantes marxistas. “La erudición de Žižek ocupa un lugar particularmente alto dentro de la crítica cultural que busca explicar las intersecciones entre el psicoanálisis y el marxismo”, escribió la erudita Erin Labbie.1 Agregó que “los escritos prolíficos de Žižek sobre ideología, que revelan las relaciones entre psicoanálisis y marxismo, han modificó la forma en que se aborda y se logra la crítica literaria y cultural en la medida en que la mayoría de los estudiosos ya no pueden mantener firmemente la idea anterior de que los dos campos están en desacuerdo”.2 Žižek es solo uno entre muchos filósofos continentales cuyos pronósticos de marxistas y marxistas flexionados llaman la atención de los académicos estadounidenses.


Jacques Derrida es reconocido como el fundador de la deconstrucción. Tomó prestado de la teoría de Saussure que el significado de un signo lingüístico depende de su relación con su opuesto, o de las cosas de las que se diferencia. Por ejemplo, el significado de hombre depende del significado de mujer; el significado de feliz depende del significado de triste; etcétera. Así, la diferencia teórica entre dos términos opuestos, o binarios, los une en nuestra conciencia. Y un binario es privilegiado mientras que el otro es devaluado. Por ejemplo, “hermoso” es privilegiado sobre “feo” y “bueno” sobre “malo”.

El resultado es una jerarquía de binarios que son dependientes del contexto o arbitrariamente, según Derrida, y no pueden ser fijos o definidos en el tiempo y el espacio. Esto se debe a que el significado existe en un estado de flujo, y nunca se convierte en parte de un objeto o idea.

El mismo Derrida, habiendo releído el Manifiesto comunista, reconoció el avance “espectral” de un “espíritu” de Marx y el marxismo.3 Aunque la llamada “hauntología” de Derrida excluye las meta-narrativas mesiánicas del marxismo no cumplido, los comentaristas han salvado Derrida es un marxismo modificado para el clima del “capitalismo tardío” actual.

Derrida usó el término diffèrance para describir el proceso difícil de alcanzar que usan los humanos para asignar significado a signos arbitrarios, incluso si los signos (los códigos y las estructuras gramaticales de la comunicación) no pueden representar adecuadamente un objeto o idea real en la realidad. Las teorías de Derrida tuvieron un amplio impacto que le permitió a él y sus seguidores considerar los signos lingüísticos y los conceptos creados por esos signos, muchos de los cuales eran fundamentales para la tradición occidental y la cultura occidental. Por ejemplo, la crítica de Derrida al logocentrismo cuestiona casi todos los fundamentos filosóficos que se derivan de Atenas y Jerusalén.

Nuevo historicismo

El Nuevo historicismo, una empresa multifacética, está asociado con el erudito de Shakespeare Stephen Greenblatt. Observa las fuerzas y condiciones históricas con un ojo estructuralista y postestructuralista, y trata los textos literarios como productos y contribuyentes al discurso y las comunidades discursivas. Se basa en la idea de que la literatura y el arte circulan a través del discurso e informan y desestabilizan las normas e instituciones culturales.

Los nuevos historicistas exploran cómo las representaciones literarias refuerzan las estructuras de poder o trabajan contra el privilegio arraigado, extrapolando la paradoja de Foucault de que el poder crece cuando se subvierte porque es capaz de reafirmarse sobre la persona subversiva o actuar en una demostración de poder. El marxismo y el materialismo a menudo surgen cuando los nuevos historicistas buscan resaltar textos y autores (o escenas y personajes literarios) en términos de sus efectos sobre la cultura, la clase y el poder. Los nuevos historicistas se centran en figuras de clase baja o marginadas, dándoles voz o agencia y prestándoles atención atrasada. Este reclamo político, aunque pretende proporcionar un contexto, sin embargo, se arriesga a proyectar inquietudes contemporáneas en obras situadas en una cultura y momento histórico particulares.

En palabras del crítico literario Paul Cantor, “existe una diferencia entre los enfoques políticos de la literatura y los enfoques politizados, es decir, entre los que tienen en cuenta la centralidad de las preocupaciones políticas en muchos clásicos literarios y los que intentan intencionalmente reinterpretar y recrear virtualmente las obras de clase a la luz de las agendas políticas contemporáneas.”4

El marxismo cultural es real

Gran parte de la protesta sobre el marxismo cultural es indignante, desinformada y conspirativa. Parte de esto simplifica, ignora o minimiza las fisuras y tensiones entre los grupos e ideas de izquierda. El marxismo cultural no se puede reducir, por ejemplo, a “corrección política” o “política identitaria”. (Recomiendo el breve artículo de Andrew Lynn “Marxismo cultural” en la edición de otoño de 2018 de The Hedgehog Review para una crítica concisa de los tratamientos descuidados y paranoicos de marxismo cultural)

Sin embargo, el marxismo impregna la Teoría, a pesar de la competencia entre las varias ideas bajo esa etiqueta amplia. A veces este marxismo es evidente por sí mismo; en otras ocasiones, es residual e implícito. En cualquier caso, ha alcanzado un carácter distinto pero en evolución, ya que los estudiosos literarios han reelaborado el marxismo clásico para dar cuenta de la relación de la literatura y la cultura con la clase, el poder y el discurso.

El feminismo, los estudios de género, la teoría crítica de la raza, el poscolonialismo, los estudios sobre la discapacidad, estas y otras disciplinas se pasan por alto uno o más de los paradigmas teóricos que he descrito. Sin embargo, el hecho de que se guíen por el marxismo o adopte términos y conceptos marxistas no los hace prohibidos o indignos de atención.

Lo que me lleva a una advertencia: condenar estas ideas como prohibidas, ya que los peligros que corrompen a las mentes jóvenes pueden tener consecuencias imprevistas. Las derivaciones marxistas deben estudiarse para ser comprendidas de manera integral. No los elimines del currículum: contextualízalos, desafíalos y pregúntalos. No reifiques su poder ignorándolos o descuidándolos.

Las iteraciones populares del marxismo cultural se revelan en el uso casual de términos como “privilegio”, “alienación”, “mercantilización”, “fetichismo”, “materialismo”, “hegemonía” o “superestructura”. Como escribió Zubatov para Tablet, “Es un paso corto desde la “hegemonía” de Gramsci hasta los memes tóxicos ahora ubicuos de “patriarcado”, “heteronormatividad”, “supremacía blanca”, “privilegio blanco”, “fragilidad blanca” y “blancura”“. Añade “Es un paso corto de la premisa marxista y marxista cultural de que las ideas son, en su esencia, expresiones de poder para una política de identidad desenfrenada y divisoria y el juicio rutinario de las personas y sus contribuciones culturales basadas en su raza, género, sexualidad y religión.”

Mi breve resumen es simplemente la versión simplificada y aproximada de una historia mucho más grande y compleja, pero orienta a los lectores curiosos que desean aprender más sobre el marxismo cultural en los estudios literarios. Hoy en día, los departamentos de inglés sufren la falta de una misión, propósito e identidad claramente definidos. Al haber perdido el rigor en favor de la política de izquierda como su principal objetivo de estudio, los departamentos de inglés en muchas universidades están en peligro por el énfasis renovado en las habilidades prácticas y la capacitación laboral. Así como los departamentos de inglés reemplazaron a los departamentos de religión y clásicos como los principales lugares para estudiar cultura, también los departamentos o escuelas del futuro podrían reemplazar a los departamentos de inglés.

Y esos lugares pueden no tolerar las agitaciones políticas que se plantean como técnica pedagógica.

El punto, sin embargo, es que el marxismo cultural existe. Tiene una historia, seguidores, adeptos y dejó una marca perceptible en temas académicos y líneas de investigación. Moyn puede desear que desaparezca, o descartarlo como un fantasma, pero es real. Debemos conocer sus efectos en la sociedad, y en qué formas se materializa en nuestra cultura. La polémica intemperada de Moyn demuestra, de hecho, la urgencia y la importancia de examinar el marxismo cultural, en lugar de cerrar los ojos a su significado, propiedades y significado.

Nota del editor: la reciente entrevista en video de Allen Mendenhall con el Centro Martin incluye temas de este artículo.

Este artículo fue publicado originalmente por el Centro Martin.

What Can Libertarians Contribute to the Study of Literature?

In Arts & Letters, higher education, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on April 10, 2019 at 6:45 am

Taxis and Cosmos: A Clarifying Table

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 3, 2019 at 6:45 am

This table is meant to clarify the distinction between taxis (“made order”) and cosmos (“grown order”), two forms of order as described by F. A. Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty: Volume One, Rules and Order (The University of Chicago Press, 1973). According to Hayek, “Classical Greek was more fortunate in possessing distinct single words for the two kinds of order, namely taxis for a made order, such as, for example, an order of battle, and kosmos for a grown order, meaning originally ‘a right order in a state or a community.’”[9]

Taxis Cosmos
Made Order[1] Grown Order[2]
Constructionist[3] Evolutionary[4]
Exogenous[5] Endogenous[6]
Planned / Designed Spontaneous
Simple Complex
Concrete Abstract
Purposeful Purposeless[7]
Centralized power Dispersed / weakened power


[1] “The first answer to which our anthropomorphic habits of thought almost inevitably lead us is that it must be due to the design of some thinking mind. And because order has been generally interpreted as such a deliberate arrangement by somebody, the concept has become unpopular among most friends of liberty and has been favored by authoritarians. According to this interpretation of order in society must rest on a relation of command and obedience, or a hierarchical structure of the whole of society in which the will of superiors, and ultimately of some single supreme authority, determines what each individual must do.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37.

[2] “The grown order … is in English most conveniently described as a spontaneous order.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37. “Since a spontaneous order results from the individual elements adapting themselves to circumstances which directly affect only some of them, and which in their totality need not be known to anyone, it may extend to circumstances so complex that no mind can comprehend them all. … Since we can know at most the rules observed by the elements of various kinds of which the structures are made up, but not all the individual elements and never all the particular circumstances in which each of them is placed, our knowledge will be restricted to the general character of the order which will form itself. And even where, as is true of a society of human beings, we may be in a position to alter at least some of the rules of conduct which the elements obey, we shall thereby be able to influence only the general character and not the detail of the resulting order.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 41.

[3] “[This] view holds that human institutions will serve human society only if they have been deliberately designed for these purposes, often also that the fact that an institution exists is evidence of its having been created for a purpose, and always that we should so re-design society and its institutions that all our actions will be wholly guided by known purposes.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 8-9.

[4] “[This] view, which has slowly and gradually advanced since antiquity but for a time was almost entirely overwhelmed by the more glamorous constructivist view, was that that orderliness of society which greatly increased the effectiveness of individual action was not due solely to institutions and practices which had been invented or designed for that purpose, but was largely due to a process described at first as ‘growth’ and later as ‘evolution,’ a process in which practices which had first been adopted for other reasons, or even purely accidentally, were preserved because they enabled the group in which they had arisen to prevail over others.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 9.

[5] “[The] authoritarian connotation of the concept of order derives … entirely from the belief that order can be created only by forces outside the system (or ‘exogenously’).” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 36.

[6] “[The authoritarian connotation of the concept of order] does not apply to an equilibrium set up from within (or ‘endogenously’) such as that which the general theory of the market endeavors to explain.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 36.

[7] “Most important … is the relation of a spontaneous order to the conception of purpose. Since such an order has not been created by an outside agency, the order as such also can have no purpose, although its existence may be very serviceable to the individuals which move within such order. But in a different sense it may well be said that the order rests on purposive action of its elements, when ‘purpose’ would, of course, mean nothing more than that their actions tend to secure the preservation and restoration of that order. The ‘purposive’ in this sense as a sort of ‘teleological’ shorthand’, as it as been called by biologists, is unobjectionable so long as we do not imply an awareness of purpose of the part of the elements, but mean merely that the elements have acquired regularities of conduct conducive to the maintenance of the order—presumably because those who did act in certain ways had within the resulting order a better chance of survival than those who did not. In general, however, it is preferable to avoid in this connection the term ‘purpose’ and to speak instead of ‘function’.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 39.

[8] All citations in this post are to this version of the book.

[9] Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37.

Cultural Marxism is Real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor, recently asked, “What is ‘cultural Marxism?’” His answer: “Nothing of the kind actually exists.” Moyn attributes the term cultural Marxism to the “runaway alt-right imagination,” claiming that it implicates zany conspiracy theories and has been “percolating for years through global sewers of hatred.”

Alexander Zubatov, an attorney writing in Tabletcountered that the “somewhat unclear and contested” term cultural Marxism “has been in circulation for over forty years.” It has, moreover, “perfectly respectable uses outside the dark, dank silos of the far right.” He concluded that cultural Marxism is neither a “conspiracy” nor a “mere right-wing ‘phantasmagoria,’” but a “coherent intellectual program, a constellation of dangerous ideas.”

In this debate, I side with Zubatov.  Here’s why.

Despite the bewildering range of controversies and meanings attributed to it, cultural Marxism (the term and the movement) has a deep, complex history in Theory. The word “Theory” (with a capital T) is the general heading for research within the interpretative branches of the humanities known as cultural and critical studies, literary criticism, and literary theory—each of which includes a variety of approaches from the phenomenological to the psychoanalytic. In the United States, Theory is commonly taught and applied in English departments, although its influence is discernable throughout the humanities.

A brief genealogy of different schools of Theory—which originated outside English departments, among philosophers and sociologists for example, but became part of English departments’ core curricula—shows not only that cultural Marxism is a nameable, describable phenomenon, but also that it proliferates beyond the academy.

Scholars versed in Theory are reasonably suspicious of crude, tendentious portrayals of their field. Nevertheless, these fields retain elements of Marxism that, in my view, require heightened and sustained scrutiny. Given estimates that communism killed over 100 million people, we must openly and honestly discuss those currents of Marxism that run through different modes of interpretation and schools of thought. To avoid complicity, moreover, we must ask whether and why Marxist ideas, however attenuated, still motivate leading scholars and spread into the broader culture.

English departments sprang up in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, ushering in increasingly professionalized studies of literature and other forms of aesthetic expression. As English became a distinct university discipline with its own curriculum, it moved away from the study of British literature and canonical works of the Western tradition in translation, and toward the philosophies that guide textual interpretation.

Although a short, sweeping survey of what followed may not satisfy those in the field, it provides others with the relevant background.

The New Criticism

The first major school to establish itself in English departments was the New Criticism. Its counterpart was Russian formalism, characterized by figures like Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, who attempted to distinguish literary texts from other texts, examining what qualities made written representations poetic, compelling, original, or moving rather than merely practical or utilitarian.

One such quality was defamiliarization. Literature, in other words, defamiliarizes language by using sound, syntax, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and other rhetorical devices.

The New Criticism, which was chiefly pedagogical, emphasized close reading, maintaining that readers searching for meaning must isolate the text under consideration from externalities like authorial intent, biography, or historical context. This method is similar to legal textualism whereby judges look strictly at the language of a statute, not to legislative history or intent, to interpret the import or meaning of that statute. The New Critics coined the term “intentional fallacy” to refer to the search for the meaning of a text anywhere but in the text itself. The New Criticism is associated with John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and T.S. Eliot. In a way, all subsequent schools of Theory are responses or reactions to the New Criticism.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Structuralism permeated French intellectual circles in the 1960s. Through structuralism, thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Louis Althusser imported leftist politics into the study of literary texts. Structuralism is rooted in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who observed how linguistic signs become differentiated within a system of language. When we say or write something, we do it according to rules and conventions in which our anticipated audience also operates. The implied order we use and communicate in is the “structure” referred to in structuralism.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss extended Saussure’s ideas about the linguistic sign to culture, arguing that the beliefs, values, and characteristic features of a social group function according to a set of tacitly known rules. These structures are “discourse,” a term that encompasses cultural norms and not just language practices.

Out of structuralism and post-structuralism emerged Structural Marxism, a school of thought linked to Althusser that analyzes the role of the state in perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class, the capitalists.

Marxism and Neo-Marxism

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Frankfurt School popularized the type of work usually labeled as “cultural Marxism.” Figures involved or associated with this school include Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. These men revised, repurposed, and extended classical Marxism by emphasizing culture and ideology, incorporating insights from emerging fields such as psychoanalysis, and researching the rise of mass media and mass culture.

Dissatisfied with economic determinism and the illusory coherence of historical materialism—and jaded by the failures of socialist and communist governments—these thinkers retooled Marxist tactics and premises in their own ways without entirely repudiating Marxist designs or ambitions.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars like Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were explicit in embracing Marxism. They rejected the New Critical approaches that divorced literature from culture, stressing that literature reflected class and economic interest, social and political structures, and power. Accordingly, they considered how literary texts reproduced (or undermined) cultural or economic structures and conditions.

Slavoj Žižek arguably has done more than any member of the Frankfurt School to integrate psychoanalysis into Marxist variants. “Žižek’s scholarship holds a particularly high place within cultural criticism that seeks to account for the intersections between psychoanalysis and Marxism,” wrote the scholar Erin Labbie.[1] She added, “Žižek’s prolific writings about ideology, revealing the relationships between psychoanalysis and Marxism, have altered the way in which literary and cultural criticism is approached and accomplished to the extent that most scholars can no longer hold tightly to the former notion that the two fields are at odds.”[2] Žižek is just one among many continental philosophers whose Marxist and Marxist-inflected prognostications command the attention of American academics. 


Jacques Derrida is recognized as the founder of deconstruction. He borrowed from Saussure’s theory that the meaning of a linguistic sign depends on its relation to its opposite, or to things from which it differs. For instance, the meaning of male depends on the meaning of female; the meaning of happy depends on the meaning of sad; and so forth. Thus, the theoretical difference between two opposing terms, or binaries, unites them in our consciousness. And one binary is privileged while the other is devalued. For example, “beautiful” is privileged over “ugly,” and “good” over “bad.”

The result is a hierarchy of binaries that are contextually or arbitrarily dependent, according to Derrida, and cannot be fixed or definite across time and space. That is because meaning exists in a state of flux, never becoming part of an object or idea.

Derrida himself, having re-read The Communist Manifesto, recognized the “spectral” furtherance of a “spirit” of Marx and Marxism.[3] Although Derrida’s so-called “hauntology” precludes the messianic meta-narratives of unfulfilled Marxism, commentators have salvaged from Derrida a modified Marxism for the climate of today’s “late capitalism.”

Derrida used the term diffèrance to describe the elusive process humans use to attach meaning to arbitrary signs, even if signs—the codes and grammatical structures of communication—cannot adequately represent an actual object or idea in reality. Derrida’s theories had a broad impact that enabled him and his followers to consider linguistic signs and the concepts created by those signs, many of which were central to the Western tradition and Western culture. For example, Derrida’s critique of logocentrism contests nearly all philosophical foundations deriving from Athens and Jerusalem. 

New Historicism

New Historicism, a multifaceted enterprise, is associated with Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt. It looks at historical forces and conditions with a structuralist and post-structuralist eye, treating literary texts as both products of and contributors to discourse and discursive communities. It is founded on the idea that literature and art circulate through discourse and inform and destabilize cultural norms and institutions.

New historicists explore how literary representations reinforce power structures or work against entrenched privilege, extrapolating from Foucault’s paradox that power grows when it is subverted because it is able to reassert itself over the subversive person or act in a show of power. Marxism and materialism often surface when new historicists seek to highlight texts and authors (or literary scenes and characters) in terms of their effects on culture, class, and power. New historicists focus on low-class or marginalized figures, supplying them with a voice or agency and giving them overdue attention. This political reclamation, while purporting to provide context, nevertheless risks projecting contemporary concerns onto works that are situated in a particular culture and historical moment.

In the words of literary critic Paul Cantor, “There is a difference between political approaches to literature and politicized approaches, that is, between those that rightly take into account the centrality of political concerns in many literary classics and those that willfully seek to reinterpret and virtually recreate class works in light of contemporary political agendas.”[4]

Cultural Marxism Is Real

Much of the outcry about cultural Marxism is outrageous, uninformed, and conspiratorial. Some of it simplifies, ignores, or downplays the fissures and tensions among leftist groups and ideas. Cultural Marxism cannot be reduced, for instance, to “political correctness” or “identity politics.” (I recommend Andrew Lynn’s short piece “Cultural Marxism” in the Fall 2018 issue of The Hedgehog Review for a concise critique of sloppy and paranoid treatments of cultural Marxism.)

Nevertheless, Marxism pervades Theory, despite the competition among the several ideas under that broad label. Sometimes this Marxism is self-evident; at other times, it’s residual and implied. At any rate, it has attained a distinct but evolving character as literary scholars have reworked classical Marxism to account for the relation of literature and culture to class, power, and discourse.

Feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, disability studies—these and other disciplines routinely get pulled through one or more of the theoretical paradigms I’ve outlined. The fact that they’re guided by Marxism or adopt Marxist terms and concepts, however, does not make them off-limits or unworthy of attention.

Which brings me to a warning: Condemning these ideas as forbidden, as dangers that corrupt young minds, might have unintended consequences. Marxist spinoffs must be studied to be comprehensively understood. Don’t remove them from the curriculum: contextualize them, challenge them, and question them. Don’t reify their power by ignoring or neglecting them.

Popular iterations of cultural Marxism reveal themselves in the casual use of terms like “privilege,” “alienation,” “commodification,” “fetishism,” “materialism,” “hegemony,” or “superstructure.” As Zubatov wrote for Tablet, “It is a short step from Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of ‘patriarchy,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ ‘and whiteness.’” He adds, “It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion.”

My brief summary is merely the simplified, approximate version of a much larger and more complex story, but it orients curious readers who wish to learn more about cultural Marxism in literary studies. Today, English departments suffer from the lack of a clearly defined mission, purpose, and identity. Having lost rigor in favor of leftist politics as their chief end of study, English departments at many universities are jeopardized by the renewed emphasis on practical skills and jobs training. Just as English departments replaced religion and classics departments as the principal places to study culture, so too could future departments or schools replace English departments.

And those places may not tolerate political agitations posturing as pedagogical technique.

The point, however, is that cultural Marxism exists. It has a history, followers, adherents, and left a perceptible mark on academic subjects and lines of inquiry. Moyn may wish it out of existence, or dismiss it as a bogeyman, but it is real. We must know its effects on society, and in what forms it materializes in our culture. Moyn’s intemperate polemic demonstrates, in fact, the urgency and importance of examining cultural Marxism, rather than closing our eyes to its meaning, properties, and significance.


[1] Erin F. Labbie, “Žižek Avec Lacan: Splitting the Dialectics of Desire,” Slovene Studies, Vol. 25 (2003), p. 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (Peggy Kamuf, trans.) (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 3-4.

[4] Paul Cantor, “Shakespeare—‘For all time’?” The Public Interest, Issue 110 (1993), p. 35.

John William Corrington on the History of Gnosticism

In Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Philosophy, Religion, Western Philosophy on March 20, 2019 at 6:45 am

In two essays from 1976, John William Corrington supplies his brief version of the history of Gnosticism. Both essays appear in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below:

The first essay examines how our empirical knowledge of the world, or experience, is necessarily bound up in the sum of our memory and interpretation of events and hence of our comprehension of history. Our experience is also an element of consciousness insofar as consciousness is the mind’s awareness of itself in relation to the phenomenal world.

The structure or makeup of consciousness is an ordered pattern of symbols. The structure of Gnostic consciousness is shaped by a hatred or dissatisfaction with the concrete reality of the world and an attempt to remake the world in the image of a false reality. Gnostic thought is regressive because it seeks to unite all things in an ideal state of unification that recalls the state of the infant in the womb whose radical break from the womb resulted in alienation and a sense of disorder.

In the second essay, Corrington points out that there have been many Gnostic schools and sects over time. The attempt to understand early Gnostics presupposes something innate or universal in the human condition because it necessarily involves a projection of our own experience and empirical knowledge of the world onto past figures, events, and modes of thought.

The Gnostics expressed in symbols their experiential knowledge of the divine that was a source of freedom from the hated reality of the concrete world. Corrington here maps different forms of Gnosticism and describes important Gnostic figures throughout various times and places. The structured symbols of Gnosticism that ordered Gnostic consciousness, he suggests, rectified the sense of alienation that derived from the unintelligibility and disorder of the cosmos.

Gnosticism considered ideal unity to be the desired end of empirical knowledge. The drive for ideal unity is evident in modern ideologies such as National Socialism, Marxist-Leninism, and other forms of totalitarianism that seek to realize an eschatological state of an eternally perfect order or ultimate reality here on earth. The Gnostic field of symbology fulfills a desire for perfect order or ultimate reality that has never been actualized concretely.

Interview with the James G. Martin Center regarding English Departments, Higher Education, Marxism, and Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Economics, higher education, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 13, 2019 at 6:45 am
%d bloggers like this: