We should return to that great era when what you did
counted for much and who you were for little.
Today’s progressives believe they are onto something new.
But the progressive script is an old theatrical play with the same drama as the earlier communist play. It stars the same protagonists dressed up with different names. And despite the hype of the performance, when the curtain comes down after the finale, both plays are equally unsatisfying.
Communist theory was first expounded by the nineteenth century philosopher, Karl Marx. Marx crafted a morality play. He observed economic changes wrought by the early industrial revolution in Western Europe, and he correctly perceived the inherent injustice in the evolving economic system.
This was high drama, complete with villains and downtrodden heroes. The villains were the bourgeoisie, the owners of industry or what Marx called the “means of production.” The downtrodden heroes were the proletariat or workers.
When the enclosure movement threw the serfs off the manor and into the towns and cities, they were robbed of their former dignity and means of livelihood. Forced to resort to selling their labor as their only means of survival, they became wage slaves. Gone was the pride of craftsmanship and the stability of manor life. As the bourgeoisie exploited the “surplus labor”—-that is, the money value created by proletariat labor—-the proletarian was robbed of the fruits of his labor. Even worse, he was now subject to the wild swings of economic expansion and contraction and hence to misery and insecurity. At the same time, societal wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the small bourgeoisie class while the proletariat remained impoverished.
The system was maintained by a false consciousness in which the proletariat failed to recognize the “class structure” of society and the exploitive nature of the bourgeois class and the system of capitalism.
The play’s drama was advanced by revolutionaries—-like Marx—who alerted the proletariat to their exploitation and encouraged them to overthrow the capitalist system. The workers would inevitably open their eyes. According to Marx, this would lead to a revolution and a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” But despite the dictatorial nature of this transitional phase, the new paradigm would result in a just society in which each contributed according to his ability and took according to his need. Thus, the unjust capitalist society would be replaced by a just and classless society.
The central purpose of the new communism was to “set things right.”
Today’s progressive movement—-different from the American Progressive movement of the late nineteenth century—repackaged this Marxist theory with new actors and injustices but the same old drama.
The epic struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is replaced by the morally laden struggles between privileged and oppressed actors with new names. In this contemporary version of Marxist drama, people of color are pitted against a white male power structure supported by a mysterious but powerful force of institutional racism. Women are pitted against a male patriarchy that invades not only the workplace, but intrudes into the very intimacy of the home to wreak injustice.
As the blinders of the new false consciousness fall from the eyes of the oppressed, new oppressed groups emerge. Some are based on “sexual minority status”—-gay people, transsexuals, intersex, non-gender conforming—-others on physical traits—-the disabled, the unattractive, fat people. In place of an exploitive bourgeoisie there are heterosexists, cis-gender persons, those who exploit the disabled and those who engage in “lookism,” that is, those who exploit others due to their appearance.
Added to these colorful actors are the multitude of colonized people of the third world and their exploitive evil colonizers. Because this is a drama, the respective roles of colonizer and colonized are always simplified, with few benefits but much evil attributed to colonization. And even long after the departure of the colonizers from formerly colonized lands, the injustice of the original colonial sin is said to persist, as every problem of the newly independent peoples is attributed to the legacy of colonialism. In the same way, injustices based on race and ethnicity are said to live on, in the form of the legacy of racism, even after much of the oppression is alleviated.
More recently the world has seen a northward migration of millions from impoverished and violent lands in the south. Amidst the confusion of roles—are these immigrants, migrants or refugees?—these folks join the long line of oppressed people who are unjustly exploited and abused in their adopted countries. There is nothing more dramatic and poignant than these huddled masses, to use the words of poet Emma Lazarus.
These are new actors in an old drama around the struggle between persecutor and victim, between exploiter and exploited. Marx’s focus on labor has now extended to every conceivable human difference, as if the very existence of difference is morally wrong.
Progressivism as the New Communism
As in Marx’s older drama, the moral imperative of progressives is to once again “set things right.” In Marx’s time this was the task of revolutionaries. Today this task falls to progressive politicians and activists, social justice reformers, civil rights workers, cultural appropriation enforcers, diversity and inclusion warriors and the like who have spread into the media, government, college campuses, neighborhood organizations and workplaces.
Marxist revolutionaries sought to set things right by leading a revolution to overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a just economic system. Progressives want to set things right through social change in order to create a just society. In a just society everyone is equal: men and women, immigrants and native-born, persons of various racial and ethnic groups, heterosexuals and homosexuals, first and third world people, disabled and able-bodied. This will be a society free from the “isms” of sexism, nativism, racism, heterosexism, colonialism and ableism.
To the progressive, the success of the newly liberated oppressed person must not be limited by the extent of his talent or effort. Success is merited by the very existence of his membership in an oppressed group. As in Marxist theory—“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”—-even people of lesser abilities and efforts deserve equal outcomes. The progressive sees anything less than this as failure.
Undergirding all this is the assumption that a just society will be gained through the intervention of government. Only government can force the needed changes. This is achieved through a complex and extensive web of government mechanisms: civil rights laws; affirmative action programs; minimum wage laws; housing assistance; guaranteed income; income maintenance programs that seamlessly transfer wealth from haves to have nots; block grants to states; guaranteed health care for all; national disaster relief….and more.
In the progressive view there is little tolerance for government that cannot deliver equal outcomes for all.
How Will it End?
When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their Communist Manifesto in 1848 they could not have imagined the consequences of their well-intentioned program. Far from creating a just world society, communism morphed into one of the most destructive forces in human history. In the end, it replaced one oppressive class—the bourgeoisie—-with another—-a corrupt and violent bureaucratic class led by some of history’s worst dictators. Millions were crushed by the forces of communism and millions more perished.
Today’s progressive movement is unlikely to result in the magnitude of crimes brought forth by communism. But it is also unlikely to achieve its lofty goals. In the end it will deliver more harm than good. For the deficiencies of communism are also the deficiencies of the progressive movement.
The simplistic plot of persecutors, victims and reformers fails to capture reality. The evil that men do lies less in the economic system or in the “isms” of racism, sexism, colonialism and the rest. It emanates from flaws in human nature that transcend all the isms. Thus, inevitably, persecutors do not always do ill, victims are not always innocent and the roles of persecutor and victim easily reverse or become obscured altogether.
Communist and progressive ideals of human equality are not realistic; they cannot be sustained by humans who are inherently acquisitive, competitive, judgmental and unfair to others. Utopian ideologies do nothing to moderate these human flaws. They make them worse by providing a socially acceptable cover for motives like control, avarice and the impulse to exploit.
So for example, communist leaders build their “proletarian state” through corruption that creates a new class of privileged bureaucrats. In their corruption and denial of basic freedoms, post-colonial Third World dictators worsen the welfare of their populations. Anti-racism progressives support affirmative action policies that unfairly harm whites. They tolerate blatant forms of racism among racial or ethnic minorities. (Witness “anti-racism” progressives who dismiss and thereby encourage the outrageous anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam.) Gay liberation activists run roughshod over Christian sensitivities as if the latter don’t matter.
Progressive politics divide rather than unite people. In the progressive narrative of identity politics, one’s group membership is the most important personal characteristic. That narrative invalidates traditional models in which citizens of various religious, racial, ethnic and economic groups pull together under a common national identity. It adds to inter-group conflict as subgroups compete for limited social goods and grow resentful of one another.
Communists and progressives have a religious-like faith in the power of government to achieve the ambitious goals they espouse. At times they seem to be seized by illusions of government’s limitless ability to raise funds and the power of those funds to ensure equality. For one thing, as Margaret Thatcher once observed about Britain’s socialists, “Sooner or later they run out of other people’s money.” But even if that weren’t the case, and even with unlimited funding, governments cannot achieve equality because people and groups are inherently different in their talents, abilities, intelligence and work ethic. As the noted economist Thomas Sowell has argued, those differences always ensure unequal outcomes.
Ultimately government is incapable of creating a society of equals.
Marxism and progressivism offer little in the way of creating a better society. But is there any way forward?
If we have learned anything from the failed experiments of communism and progressivism it is that reliance on simplistic solutions leads to ruin. That doesn’t mean we should give up. Here I offer a few ideas for the road ahead. None of these is new.
We should end identity politics. We should return to that great era when what you did counted for much and who you were for little. The focus should be on the individual, not the group. The best system is one in which societal rewards are earned by individual talent, initiative and effort; where government and other societal institutions free people to succeed or fail based on their personal merits.
We must accept that equality is not a realistic or desirable goal. Some societal groups will do better than others for a variety of reasons: differences in values, talents and abilities; even differences in average age or health among groups. And yes, chance will favor some over others. No government program will or should change that.
The best government is one that gets out of the way. Government should limit itself to what it does best: set fair rules for everyone; use economic policies to stabilize the economy; control crime; protect the environment; ensure that the justice system protects innocents from criminals and children from abusive adults; enforce contractual obligations; provide for national defense; and moderate the excesses of capitalism such as unsafe and exploitive work situations.
We should avoid the drama and moralizing of our failed isms; emphasize the individual rather than the group; and lessen our expectations of government.
Above all, we should be pragmatists.