Well, I guess we gotta talk about commies again. If you thought that the collapse of the USSR in 1991 would put the last nail in the coffin of Marxism, you'd be wrong. As I pointed out previously, the commies, now calling themselves Progressives, are still with us. Even worse, they seem to be getting stronger.
In 1902, Vladimir Lenin published a political tract named What Is To Be Done?. Written nearly 16 years before the October Revolution made Lenin the master of Russia, it lays out a plan to raise the political and class consciousness of the proletariat. Basically, it was a complaint that working class wasn't radical enough, followed by a plan to radicalize them. Well, he certainly managed to do that.
Lenin wanted to create a political party to teach the workers about communism. He felt that a small dedicated group, a "Vanguard" woulkd be needed to help drag the proletariat's class consciousness towards socialism. He wanted to radicalize workers beyond just demanding better wages and work conditions from their employers. He didn't want some weak-sauce trade unionism. He wanted control of the State.
This idea had many opponents in the Russian revolutionary movement. Many of the Russian socialists felt that it wasn't possible to move directly from a feudal state, which is essentially what Russia was, directly to a socialist state. They argued that Karl Marx, who created the "science" of socialism, taught that the workers needed to go through a capitalist stage, before they'd be ripe for socialism. And, any socialist party would need to be a large, popular movement, which could help shepherd the workers towards the socialist ideal.
Lenin simply wasn't having any of that. He didn't need all the workers to be radicalized in some mass movement. And he certainly didn't want to wait through some period of capitalist interregnum before taking power. He only needed enough workers to take over St. Petersburg and Moscow. Control that, and you control Russia. After that, any workers that hadn't yet gotten with the program would quickly figure out where their best interests lay when they saw which way the bayonets were blowing.
Lenin felt so strongly about this that he pushed this idea to the point where it broke the Russian socialist revolutionary movement into two camps. Lenin headed the Bolsheviks, while the more cautious socialists became the Mensheviks.
As it turned out, Lenin won, thanks to Germany.
First, the Germans delivered repeated and sound thrashings to the hapless Czarist army. By 1917, the prospect of being sent west to briefly serve as a bullet stop was...unappealing to young Russian men. For everyone else, the hardships and privation that resulted from Russia's disastrous participation in the war bred a huge amount of discontent.
Second, the Germans shipped Lenin, who had been exiled from Russia, back home in a sealed rail car. Lenin took advantage of this opportunity to take over the revolution in Russia while many Mensheviks were still exiled. So, Lenin wound up on top, while his Menshevik opponents became also-rans in the race to a socialist revolution. Lenin got the satisfaction of outlawing the Mensheviks in 1923, and many of them left the USSR. Those that remained were mainly bumped off by Joe Stalin in the early '30s.
Marxism isn't kind to its political opponents, even those who were former allies.
Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) believed that Marxism couldn't win in Western societies by directly attacking the political and economic system of governance. He proposed, instead, what he called a "war of position".
In Russia, he argued, taking over the country was possible via revolution because there really wasn't anything like a civil society in Russia. The State controlled everything. There were no strong mediating institutions in Russia. This enabled Lenin to wage a "war of movement".
In the West however, the situation was different. There were strong cultural, social, and religious institutions operating outside state control. The existence of strong civil institutions required different tactics for conquering the West.
Gramsci argued that a war of position is necessary for advanced capitalist societies where civil society has become a “very complex structure” that is resistant to “incursions,” such as economic depressions, that would otherwise weaken the current power structure in terms of ideological support. In other words, civil society provided a support system for the current political structure and those in power who could help it withstand otherwise negative shocks like economic recessions.
Around 1967, a German socialist activist, Rudi Dutschke, coined the term "The Long March Through the Institutions" as part of a plan for socialists to infiltrate and insinuate themselves into every major cultural institution. This was quite similar to Gramsci's idea of "war of position", though, oddly, it doesn't seem Dutschke was aware of this, nor did he ever mention Gramsci in his writings. In any event, Gramsci's idea stuck, but we now refer to it by the name Dutschke coined.
The idea was to conquer the system by entering it, gaining control of it, then perverting it to weaken liberal, democratic values. Progressives needed to work inside every cultural institution: art, entertainment, journalism, non-profits, political parties, corporations...all of them. Once inside, they could slowly begin taking over. It's a process that takes years of working inside the organization, rising to a position that gives you hiring authority, then hiring other Progressives to fill open slots. Ultimately, you can gain control of the institution to turn it towards Progressive messaging and ends. It's a long-term strategy that requires patience and time.
But Gramsci argued that it would be highly effective:
Once all these conditions are in place—i.e. a new collective will, ideological control over institutions of civil society, revolutionaries in strategic positions in the state—the time would be right for the final and conclusive “war of movement.”
This full-frontal war of movement to overthrow the existing state and social order will be assured to not only be successful but also permanent. For according to Gramsci, “in politics, the ‘war of position’, once won, is decisive definitively.”
This is the strategy the Western Progressives have been pursing since the 1970s, though of course, they deny and ridicule the idea, with a sort of, "who are you gonna believe, me, or your own lying eyes?" sort of response. Still, even they have to acknowledge that it's not unreasonable to think that the Long March, or something very much like it, is indeed happening.
Conservatives are not fantasizing when they perceive that their beliefs are being anathematized by elites and elite institutions. Over the last couple decades, polarization has injected politics into peoples’ lives to a much greater extent — during the 1990s, it was common, even in Washington, D.C, to attend a party and never discuss politics. Simultaneously, the increasingly liberal cast of college-educated Americans has made all sorts of elite institutions more liberal even as they have grown more political. It is a real sea change in American life for giant corporations to endorse a left-wing group like Black Lives Matter.
We are, however, supposed to believe that this "sea change" is not the result of Progressives taking over the educational system to churn out legions of new young Progressives, who, in turn, infiltrate the mediating institutions of civil society. Instead, we are supposed to believe this is just some sort of organic change that is not, in any way, fomented by Progressives. Never mind that their ideology now controls academia, HR systems, the major non-profits, and so forth. That's just a coincidence.
Well, if you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you.
In addition to the takeover of civil institutions by Progressives, there's also the issue of immigration. This is a complex topic, and perhaps needs a stand-alone article to address. But what is undeniable is that the Progressive—as well as the traditional Libertarian—ideal is to implement an open borders policy. Anyone who wants to come to the West should be able to do so. A similar immigration policy already exists in the EU. The US does not formally have such a policy, and indeed, American law forbids it, but, as a practical matter, US borders are largely open under President Biden's management.
Prior to 1924, America did have an open borders policy. What America did not have was any governmental system of welfare or social support. Immigrants to the United States were largely left to fend for themselves. In this environment, immigrants who could not make a life for themselves were forced to return to their home countries. Immigrants knew, before even traveling to America, that immigration was a huge risk. Thus, immigration to America tended to draw in immigrants with a higher tolerance for risk, and a willingness to work hard.
As Nobel economist Milton Friedman pointed out:
Because it is one thing to have free immigration to jobs. It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. And you cannot have both. If you have a welfare state, if you have a state in which every resident is promises a certain minimal level of income, or a minimum level of subsistence, regardless of whether he works or not, produces it or not. Then it really is an impossible thing.
Friedman wanted open immigration, by the way, he just wanted immigrants to be denied any access at all to the American welfare system. But we don't actually do that. We used to do it for illegal aliens, but we don't even do that anymore. Even illegal aliens have access to various social programs that were previously denied to them,especially in states like California.
(By the way, while writing the previous paragraph, I received an admonishment from Visual Studio Code, which I use as my Markdown editor. It informed me that the term "illegal immigrant" is offensive. Strangely, however, using the term "illegal alien" doesn't rate such an admonishment. So I've revised the paragraph since "illegal alien" isn't considered an offensive term. Though, of course, under the current administration, it is, in fact, considered offensive and is a forbidden usage, despite the fact that it's the actual term used in the Immigration Act of 1986. Thus, we have another example of Progressive capture of our institutions.)
Of course, to view immigration in this light is to restrict our analysis to purely economic terms. To do so is to treat immigrants as fungible economic units, who bring no political, social, or cultural ideas with them. But that isn't true.
This has become increasingly clear in recent years, and, since the Oct 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas has become starkly clear. Thousands of immigrants from the Mideast, accompanied by additional thousands of American Progressives have taken to the streets in support of Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular. Hamas, of course, is a proscribed terrorist organization, and has been since 1997.
We have created, and continue to create, a situation in which many people who immigrate to the US simply don't like the society that now hosts them. Many of them don't believe in core American values, such as freedom of religion, democratic governance, or equal rights for women, and so forth. They immigrate to the US to accept our beneficence, yet they hate us. They dislike our society, and if they had the power to do so, they'd change it to more closely model the society that they fled.
With all the above in mind, maybe it's time to re-ask the title question of Lenin's tract, but in a different context.
As a practical matter, it doesn't really matter of the Long March Through the Institutions was effected as a planned strategy or not. It doesn't matter how we got here. What matters is where we are now.
The only things that matters are:
One of the key weaknesses of an open, liberal, democratic society, is the lack of tools to respond to a political opponent who's willing to use liberal means to accomplish illiberal ends. How do you respond to opponents who are perfectly willing to weaponize your values against you?
For classical liberals, assuming there was space and time to do so, one response would be to effect our own Long March in reverse through the institutions to recapture them. Another might be to create and support new civil institutions to oppose and, eventually replace the ones captured by the Progressives. My fear is that we have neither the time nor the space to do this.
Western liberals, and particularly American ones, have a sort of naive relationship to our values. Let's take the example of online censorship as an example.
We now know that the government was in direct contact with Twitter, Facebook/Meta, Google, and others to report online content that contradicted government narratives on issues like Covid-19 and other topics. Social media companies often responded to these governmental concerns by banning users, removing posts, account suspensions, limiting rach/views, etc. All, of course, for the public good, and to eliminate "misinformation". The naive response from many classical liberals was to say that these are all private companies, and they can censor anything they wish, and the government didn't directly threaten the companies with government action if they didn't comply.
But, even if government officials didn't directly threaten action against the companies, the implicit threat was always there. It didn't need to be overtly stated. That threat to free speech is, ultimately relatively easy to fix, because there are clearly laws against such government interference. Indeed, the Federal court system is addressing this issue currently by issuing injunctions against direct contact with social media companies by government agencies.
But not all online censorship is so easily addressed.
Indeed, Google, for example, has become far less useful over the last couple of years, because the company has implemented algorithms to hide or reduce the reach of certain political or social opinions, to ensure they don't easily come up in a normal Google search. The primary Internet search engine now acts as a filter to hide certain politically sensitive results. "So what?", some say. "If you don't like how Google censors search, create your own Google." As if it were possible to overcome the monopoly power of company that's been the leading search engine for 20 years through some quick overnight effort.
Such a response incorporates a naive view of the 1st Amendment. The entire point of the 1st Amendment, it's very core, is to protect the expression of unpopular or sensitive ideas. If the primary Internet search engine is programmed to do the opposite, how do we respond? Spending 20 years and billions of dollars to create a new Internet search engine to overthrow the current Google monopoly doesn't seem like a very effective answer, and it certainly is an immediate one.
Let's look at an even tougher example. How do we respond to someone who says, as some Mideastern immigrants have publicly stated, that their religion imposes Sharia law, and they wish to have their own, independent legal system that implements it, completely outside the American legal system? Theocratic law is completely incompatible with American law, and with the Constitution.
What choices do we need to make to protect liberal, western values from those who wish to eliminate them?
Some choices are going to be easier than others, though still unpleasant. For instance, any non-citizen who demonstrates for Hamas can simply be found and deported for supporting a proscribed terrorist organization. Immigration to the US is a privilege, not a right. We have no obligation to shelter immigrants who do not wish to agree to the principles on which our society was founded, or who publicly support terrorists and terrorism. Indeed, we have an obligation to reject them, for our own safety.
How to handle our home-grown Progressives, however, those who want to fundamentally change America into a collective enterprise, is a much tougher question. And, honestly, I don't know what the answer might be. What I do know is that the time has come to think deeply about how to protect individual liberty from those who want to eliminate it. If we can't effectively defend the ideal of freedom, we'll lose it. At the same time, I fear that defending liberal ideals through illiberal means will end up destroying those ideals anyway.
Nor do I think this is a problem that can be addressed through governmental action, in many ways, without imposing repression. Once government has the power to forbid political ideas you don't like, it has the power to forbid the ones you do. You can't save the village by destroying it. Frankly, the available political responses are mostly pretty bleak.
But our current situation is not only part of a political problem, but a cultural one, and politics is always downstream of culture. Ultimately, you can't prevent cultural change through government action, though the government, through incentives of various kinds, might be able to promote cultural changes at the margin. We must find an effective corrective cultural response to reverse the Progressive infection of cultural Marxism. If we don't, there's really no winning political strategy in the long term. If a substantial enough majority of Americans decide to reject liberty, there simply won't be any once they have their way.
Unfortunately, we're edging very close to the time when hard decisions must be made to preserve the intent and core of our traditional values of individual liberty. We're going to have to decide how to act to protect liberal values against those who would weaponize them against us. Sure, we believe in fidelity to the Constitution and the liberties it recognizes, but the Constitution is not, as Justice Robert Jackson once said, a suicide pact.
So...What is to be done?