Much has been rightly said about recent attacks on conservative, libertarian, and other non-Leftist speakers on college and university campuses around the country. The elements of intellectual intolerance, the willingness to shout down any ideological critic or opponent, and the resort to incidents of on-campus violence to prevent invited speakers from addressing students have been pointed out to represent a dangerous totalitarian streak among “progressives” and even more radical Leftists.
Some opinion writers such as David Brooks have warned that we face a new “Crisis of Western Civilization,” and Heather MacDonald has pointed out that that “Those ‘Snowflakes’ Have Chilling Effects Beyond the Campus.”
Brooks emphasizes that these Leftists reject the principles and premises of Western Civilization: the ideas and ideals of individual liberty, freedom of speech and expression, the importance of private property, and the institutions of open and democratic discourse. MacDonald highlights that what is plaguing college campuses and spilling over into the wider society is not simply the parental coddling of young people which makes them spoiled brats who say “no” to anything they dislike. No, MacDonald warns that this is an ideological rejection of the true diversity of peacefully opposing and challenging views for a worldview that sees nothing but group conflicts of oppressors and oppressed.
David Brooks and Heather MacDonald, among others who have been making similar critical observations about the social environment at a growing number of institutions of higher learning, are correctly analyzing a damaging and dangerous trend in American academia.
The Counter-Revolution against Individualism
But we should also appreciate that this is the renewed counter-revolution against the philosophical individualist and market-based foundations of the modern world. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were many who hailed and even proudly boasted about the triumph of Western freedom and free market capitalism over Marxian communism in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We” won; “they” lost. The future belongs to “us.” Some even spoke of the “end of history,” with nothing but “democratic capitalism” as the socio-economic system left to rule the world.
The fact was that Soviet-style socialist central planning, and the corruption and bankruptcy of the institutionalized privilege and plunder into which Soviet society had evolved, had failed. By the 1980s, there were very few people living in the Soviet-bloc countries, including the Soviet Union itself, who still believed in the vision of the bright and beautiful world their Marxist masters had been promising for almost three-quarters of a century, since the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917.
In the West, those on the political Left, who for decades had been apologists for or even proponents of that Soviet version of the collectivist ideal, became mostly silent. Down an Orwellian memory hole went all their earlier denials of mass murder and political oppression wherever the Soviet model had been introduced anywhere around the world. They never said it; they never defended those Marxist regimes; they never denied the vast network of Soviet spies in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. during the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s.
Similar to how Stalin would have former associates airbrushed out of Soviet photos with him once they had been purged, tortured, and murdered, “the Left” in the West wiped their embarrassing past as GULAG deniers and propaganda contortionists who kept referring to “moral equivalence” – that is, that there was no difference between Soviet-style socialism and Western democratic capitalism, other than that capitalism was worse.
Anti-Capitalism Survived the Demise of the Soviet Union
But what had not been rejected among many intellectuals and academics in the West, including in the United States, was their belief in and adherence to the Marxian critique of capitalist society. In their minds, however much the promise of socialism-in-practice seemed to have been a disturbing failure in the Soviet Union, they still accepted the essentials of Karl Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system.
Capitalism was a “class-based” society of exploiters and exploited, based on the unequal ownership and distribution of property and wealth. The profit-motive and market competition were guided by a self-interested drive for personal gain at the expense of others in society and the “social needs” of the community as a whole. When left on its own, capitalism plundered the physical world, oppressed the poor and underprivileged around the globe, concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a small minority (the “one percent”), and threatened war and destruction in the pursuit of those ill-gotten profits.
In the immediate aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union, and in the face of apparent economic “good times,” the academic and intellectual critics of existing capitalist society retreated into the corners of college classrooms and academic associations for the construction of new variations of the same collectivist and Marxist themes. But with the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the latest apparent “failure of capitalism,” the door was opened to the new public and political assault on the remainders of the free society in the West and the United States.
Race and Gender Warfare Replaced Class Conflict
In the wake of the “passing” of the older class conflict analysis between the capitalist exploiters and “the workers,” the new variations on the Marxian theme now turned to “race,” “gender,” “ethnicity,” and general “social injustice.”
Just as there was an “irreconcilable conflict” between capitalist property owners and propertyless workers, now there was an inherent conflict between “white people” who are intrinsically and inescapably “racist” against all people of color, who they have been oppressing through the centuries. Likewise, “men” were inherently (“genetically”?) an oppressor gender against “women,” as reflected in an endemic rape culture and wage differentials between male and female in the workplace.
Just as “the workers” in the Marxian paradigm had to escape the “false consciousness” of believing that existing property relationships under capitalism were “natural” and “just,” and that income inequality was based on a conception of “merit,” now racial and ethnic groups and women had to “raise their consciousness” to a higher level that would free them from their capitalist, male, and racist oppression.
Classical Liberalism Ended Slavery around the World
The history of mankind was rewritten to deny that one of the most pervasive and “equal opportunity” institutions throughout the ages had been slavery, and which had nothing to do with race, per se. Ancient Greeks enslaved other Greeks. The ancient Romans enslaved members of every group and society they conquered, with no regard to racial or ethnic characteristics. Asians enslaved Asians, Africans enslaved Africans, and the Ancient Aztecs and Incas enslaved other natives of the Americas, just as the Indian tribes did in North America.
The peculiar twist to this pervasive and perverse institution was that in the American colonial period, black Africans were transported to the “New World” as slaves with their masters mostly (but not always) those of European descent.
But, erased from within, this new Leftist “racial interpretation of history” has been that the end to the institution of slavery worldwide began in Europe, and Great Britain in particular, with the formation of an anti-slavery league devoted to abolishing what the members believed to be an abomination before the eyes of God and man, and that it was in “white” Great Britain that an act of Parliament abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834. Before this formal end to slavery, free British men and women donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the freedom of Africans being held in bondage, often right off the slave auction blocks in places like Zanzibar in East Africa.
Highlighting this is not meant to demonstrate or argue some misplaced superiority of “white people,” but to show that moral conscience has no “color bar.” It was precisely because the new 18th and 19th century (classical) liberal ideal of individual freedom in social, economic, and political affairs had gained hold of people’s minds in places like Great Britain that it was now increasingly believed that all human beings possessed certain inherent, “natural” rights to their life and liberty.
This universal principle of human freedom could not and should not only apply to one part of the human race, but to all men. Therefore, it aroused a particular sense of indignation that some human beings should be held in bondage to others simply because of the accident of birth in the form of the color of one’s skin. The case for ending black slavery was based on the ecumenical principle of the right to liberty for all members of the far wider human race.
Classical Liberalism and Capitalism Liberated Women
Through the ages, in most societies, women had held an inferior status to men. They were part of the booty of war and conquest. A daughter was considered the “property” of her father, and she and any possessions she might have were transferred to her husband at the time of what was frequently an arranged marriage. This, too, had been considered part of a certain natural order of things.
But, again, with the dawn of the (classical) liberal era, this slowly began to change. In spite of the false linguistic interpretations of modern Leftists, “man” and “mankind” had always been understood, contextually, to refer to and speak about all human beings, men and women. As the age of liberty progressed in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became clearer to a growing number of men that when speaking of an equality of rights and dignity and respected autonomy among males, there could not be failure to also include the other half of humanity, the female of the human species.
Women, certainly, raised their voices decrying an inconsistency – even hypocrisy – among men to speak about such equal rights and treatment before the law and in contract but not to extend the same to females as well. But this idea was no less among leading men in defense of human freedom – for instance, John Stuart Mill in his The Subjugation of Women (1869) and, nearly 20 years earlier, in a notable chapter on “The Rights of Women” in Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851).
But what most opened the door for the liberation of women was the freeing of private enterprise from the heavy hand of Mercantilist and related industrial regulations in places like Great Britain in the 19th century. The factory system created a growing need for workers to assist in the development of manufactured mass production. Men and women traditionally or legally bound to the land in the rural areas could now escape to the expanding commercial cities to find work and social opportunities away from the rigid and stifling conditions of agricultural labor and control by the landed aristocracy.
Emerging capitalist enterprise began to give women the chance to break away and to earn their own living, becoming personally and financially independent of controlling fathers or restricting marriages. Women could earn their own income, enter into contracts, make their own decisions about their future and marriage, and even have wealth to bequeath to those to whom they wished to leave it. The law may not, at first, have recognized everything these new “liberties” made possible and practiced in the marketplace, but the reality slowly but surely required the law to adapt to actual circumstances and relationships that capitalism made possible for women.
Market-based competition and contracts undermined the age-old confines of cultural and political paternalism that had limited women to roles in society defined and determined by the male members of their families. This market reality of women’s liberation also worked to change people’s general attitudes about the supposed “natural” places and possibilities for men and women in a new, more open society. Here, too, the classical liberal demands for free markets and voluntary association fostered a new self-determining setting for the female half of the population.
The Left’s False History and Conception of Human Relationships
This “inconvenient history” of how philosophical individualism and free market capitalism changed the course of human events from its thousands of years-old history of human slavery and female subjugation, to the idea and practice of near-universal human liberty. For a long time, at least in the West, this has been practically eliminated from college and university courses in history, political science, or sociology.
If the term had not become so politicized and twisted, it would be appropriate to say that what has been put in its place is “fake” history. A history that ignores the material, cultural, and political achievements of free market capitalism and classical liberalism to positively transform the human condition in ways unimaginable in earlier epochs of human existence on this planet.
Instead, in true Marxian fashion, history is rewritten, again, to reflect and reinforce mythical conceptions of man, human relationships, and social order. The goal is to create a real “false consciousness” among segments of society in which they no longer think of themselves as distinct and individual human beings, but as inescapable and interchangeable particles within a collectivist mass of particular race, gender, or social groups that define them and whose collective destiny determines their own.
Overlaid on this is the new assertion that reality is self-defining. You are the race, ethnicity, or gender you consider yourself to be (as long as the choice and actions based on it are consistent with the changing biases and prejudices of the Leftist elite concerning who and what you may call yourself in different settings and circumstances that serve the advancement of their ideological agenda!). This, too, is a variation of the earlier Marxian theme that there are no invariant and universal principles or relationships; these change with the evolving epochs of human existence that lead to socialism.
Certain that they understand the “real” relationships of human existence that many others are too blind or victimized to see, these Leftists feel called upon to help the progress of the human history that they know they are on “the right side” of. This includes verbally and even violently silencing those who are the voices for the social, racial, and gender “oppression” to which they must bring an end.
These are the new totalitarians in our midst. They are the secular religious fanatics on a mission to cleanse humankind from its capitalist, male, and white exploiters and abusers. And, also like their older Marxist ancestors, for them there is no compromise or reasoning among people of goodwill. It is a life and death struggle against those they designate as racists, misogynists, “fascists,” and greedy capitalists.
Expect more extreme measures from these Leftist foot soldiers in their renewed global war on individualism, free market capitalism, and a (classical) liberal humane society. The collectivist counter-revolution against human freedom continues in the 21st century. The preservation and extension of whatever liberty we still have requires steadfast determination on our part to defend reason, reality, and the free and open society.
Richard M. Ebeling
Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.