KNOW YOUR ENEMY
A WARNING ABOUT THE “RACE MARXISM” BRAND
This started as a comment on the MindMatters YouTube page, but quickly got to be ridiculously long for that format. So, instead I’ve expanded it and put it here, with a link from there, to here. It then obviously, originally, was explicitly directed at the watchers of that show, though I hope it may be of interest to subscribers to this substack. I realize, it may be a bit inside-baseball on the Marxology for some. As usual, for those who are interested, I welcome the always lively discussion in the comments section.
Apparently, the U.S. invaded Iraq expecting to be welcomed as conquering heroes and that, once freed from Saddam’s tyranny, Iraqis would enthusiastically turn away from sectarian politics to embrace liberal democratic constitutionalism under American tutelage. It didn’t turn out that way. Combined with other factors, including an elaborate feint, Hitler believed the allies couldn’t mount an invasion across the English Channel without a natural port to unload vehicles, so disastrously insisted upon preparing for the D Day invasion to be at Calais. It didn’t turn out that way, either. During the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, British light cavalry forces thought they were being sent to disrupt a Russian armament salvage operation, but instead rode a frontal assault straight into the teeth of withering direct fire from a dug-in artillery battery. They were slaughtered, suffering a 40% casualty rate.
These would seem to be cases of failing to heed, at the most basic level, Sun Tzu’s exhortation to know your enemy. If you don’t have a clear image in your head about the forces you’re battling, there’s a great danger of disastrous failure. Such human truisms are hardly restricted to military conflict, either. At a more mundane interpersonal level, similar lessons are drawn from the experience of psychotherapy. Concepts like projection and transference capture the notion of people treating others in ways that do not correspond with reality, but rather with their own internalized expectations and entrenched relational patterns, presumably based upon the formative impact of prior experience.
The upshot of all this is that holding a mistaken ideal in your head about something that is real reduces the likelihood that you can successfully navigate an effective response to that bit of reality. And if that bit of reality is hostile to you, your delusion about its true nature can be very costly. Sun Tzu’s exhortation might be invoked at a couple of levels, here. First, I have to confess that I haven’t read James Lindsay’s book, Race Marxism. So Lindsay could be forgiven for accusing me of not knowing what I’m talking about. I appreciate there’s a risk of that. However, as I believe there’s a much larger risk that it is Lindsay’s arguments which could result in widespread failure to heed Sun Tzu’s exhortation, potentially leading to grief in the pursuit of the broad political goals which we share, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
With that confession on the record, I will say that I have heard him discuss his Race Marxism analysis at length on many occasions. Additionally, I just got finished watching the guys at MindMatters discuss Lindsay’s book for over an hour. (It might be helpful to watch that discussion, too.) When the MindMatters guys were kind enough to dedicate an hour-plus to discussing my work (see here), they did a good job of accurately representing it. So, I’m going to assume that they did a good job representing Lindsay’s book. If I’m way off here and someone can point me to something in his book that neutralizes my points below, I’ll happily offer my mea culpa.
However, at the very least, it seems safe to say that the four intelligent readers and thinkers of the MindMatters show didn’t take away from his book anything that corrected for my points below. So even if he has passages that address my points, the general thrust of the argument hasn’t sufficiently focused on them to inform the assessment of those four readers. And worst-case scenario, if my concerns are not properly directed at Lindsay, these remarks should at least be valuable as a warning to readers of Lindsay who might all too easily lapse into the mistakes that I fear he may be making.
So, based on the MindMatters guys’ reading of his book, and my impression from the many times I’ve heard him discuss the topic, I think that Lindsay is tapping into a kind of conceptual click-bait, to trigger deep-seated emotional responses to critical race theory (CRT). Tactically, at least short term, this may make sense. However, in the process, I think he is misleading a lot of people, both by this misuse of “Marxism” as well as his misuse of the idea of communism.1 My concern is that this tactic may have long term unforeseen strategic or tactical consequences. I think it is generally better to have the best understanding possible of what you’re up against, even if it comes at the cost of missing out on the benefits of a hot button motivational revulsion.
Presumably, in his characterization of CRT as Race Marxism, Lindsay is aiming at Hegelian Marxism. There have been many Marxists who moderated or eliminated Marx’s Hegelianism to take him in many of several different directions2 – including my own brand of right-wing, quasi-Schmittian-Marxism. But since Lindsay doesn’t qualify his use of the term in his Race Marxism branding, I’m assuming he’s appealing here to the Marxism of Karl Marx, which was decidedly Hegelian. Two obvious, major difficulties arise if we treat this as anything more than a rough analogy.
First, the historical dialectic is essential to such an analysis. Hegelian Marxism (and indeed Hegelianism) is premised upon a clearly designated end point to history.3 Furthermore, the achievement of that end point is clearly identified as unfolding out of the logic of the prior historical conditions. The shape of the coming historical stage is the resulting logic of the conditions of the prior stage. You might dismiss this way of thinking as excessively mechanistic, many have (including various revisionist Marxists), but it’s still the core premise of Hegelian Marxism. There’s nothing like that in CRT – nor known by the more accurate name, of which it is a subset: managerial liberalism. The latter is instead an open-ended grievance-fest, serving to endlessly legitimize the bureaucratic paternalism and social engineering aspirations of the ruling managerial class.4
So, on the one hand, we have Hegelian Marxism which has a clearly identifiable and necessary end point, which is not only specific and coherent, but is specifically identifiable in the unfolding conditions of the prior phase leading into the new phase, along the lines of material relationships identified by the theory. On the other hand, in CRT (or more to the point, managerial liberalism) we have an endless, Kafkaesque world of irresolvable grievance, in which there’s always still more, previously unidentified, and perhaps unimaginable new forms of racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or transphobia, etc.) that need to be sniffed out and eradicated. The project of human perfectionism, pursued through social engineering, enshrined in bureaucratic paternalism, is never over. For if it were over, the legitimacy of the managerial class’s own technocratic mission of human salvation would lose all its thunder. This is the significance of concepts such as innate bias and systemic racism. They are the bottomless pit of managerial class rule’s rationale and legitimacy. In this way, in their own self-understanding and presentation, CRT and Marxism are incompatible political or revolutionary projects.5
Second, as Harrison hinted at in the MindMatters discussion, there’s nothing especially unique to Marxism in pointing out the existence of conflict between social groups. For hundreds of years before Marx, in Europe, it was Catholic and Protestant writers who characterized such religious divisions as the fundamental social conflict. We’d only need to know which group held power in any specific jurisdiction to predict which was described as the oppressive or malicious group by writers of the other group. What’s distinctive about Marx was the historical materialist idea that such fundamental conflicts were rooted in class, specifically as defined by one’s relationship to the means of production. Strictly speaking this was a sociological and economic analysis, but in a Hegelian framework it also became a political and strategic insight and imperative.
So, treating Hegelian Marxism as a political strategy, CRT is not merely inconsistent with Marxism, it is 180 degrees diametrically OPPOSED to Marxism. The Marxist revolution required the fulfillment of the proletariat’s historical mission, which was going to require class consciousness and solidarity. Emphasizing other fissures, cutting against class, such as race, whether intended or not, constituted a divide and conquer effect, misdirecting workers from the objective grounds of their class nature and interests. Emphasizing racial differences is just the kind of weaselly ploy you’d expect from the bourgeoisie, in an effort to thwart the class consciousness that could usher in the revolution and liberate humanity from alienated labour and economic slavery. And so on and so forth.
Again, all this has been thoroughly criticized from within Marxism, by those who have rejected or moderated Marx’s Hegelianism for its teleology and eschatology. But it was Marx’s position. So, if Lindsay is referencing Marx, personally, with his brand of Race Marxism, I think he has it wrong. If he has some other brand of Marxism in mind, that needs to be made clearer in the branding. And, again, I haven’t read the book. But I do know that he makes a lot of the Frankfurt School, though it’s worth noting that orthodox Hegelian Marxists then and now have rejected the Frankfurt School as even being Marxist.
And, incidentally, another wrinkle to the Frankfurt School, that so many contemporary critics ignore in their sweeping dismissal of the school (but relevant for this substack), is that they were right up there among the neo- and post-Marxists that provided a searing critique of what they called the “totally administered” and “one dimensional” society. Now, the Frankfurt School did not (at least, to my knowledge) make the connection that many others in that camp did, recognizing that there was an emergent managerial class behind all this, nor that the revolutionary Marxists were in fact that class of wolves in sheep’s clothing.6 But they did clearly conclude that orthodox Hegelian Marxism wasn’t sufficient. So, while they maintained the pretense of Marxism (though once they immigrated to the then less hospitable environs of the U.S.7, they invoked this pretense in the disguised code language of “critical theory”), they’d clearly left behind the Hegelian Marxism of Karl Marx and the orthodox Marxists.
So, again, besides a crude analogy, Lindsay’s use of the word Marxism seems to be little more than click bait. If I’m wrong then I wish he’d make more explicit in his public discussions of the topic which Marxism precisely he thinks is being used here? It seems that it’s really “critical theory” upon which he is ultimately focused. However, as just noted, the Frankfurt School’s Marxist bona fides are highly questionable. Is someone like Marcuse a Marxist just because he says (or even thinks) that he is? Was Marcuse’s and the Frankfurt School’s critical theory really Marxism, if they divested themselves of Hegelian Marxism’s key theoretical and strategic axioms? Why should that be called Marxism? Call it by the name they took after they jettisoned Marx’s Hegelian Marxism: critical theory. I don’t just call myself a Marxist having jettisoned the Hegelianism; I make the point of distinguishing my retooling of Marxism as right-wing Marxism, or Schmittian-Marxism. But if we were to do that with Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, then “critical race theory” wouldn’t be so far off the mark as the appropriate designation.8 Again, of course, to really understand what the larger social and political function is of CRT, you need to contextualize it in what I call managerial liberalism.9
And this brings me to the final point I want to make about Lindsay’s fondness for these analogies. He also frequently says that what the ruling globalist faction of the managerial class is ushering into our societies is communism. Again, in what meaningful sense? Not in the idealized sense of universal economic equality, or the elimination of alienated labour: Lindsay doesn’t believe that’s their goal. So, then in the practical sense, of the real-world communism of the Soviet Union, Communist China, or Cuba? Many, if not most, of the advocates of CRT (especially those sympathetic to intersectional cousin, Queer Theory) in Stalin’s (maybe even Lenin’s) USSR would have received delivery to a Gulag, if not a bullet through the back of the skull. Real-world, old school 20th century communists had little tolerance for what they considered degenerates or bourgeois deviationists.
Communism (as I explained in The Managerial Class on Trial) was a specific managerial class strategy, developed for particular historic, economic, and cultural conditions — just as were the other managerial class strategies of Fascism and Nazism. Of course there are resemblances to what we’re experiencing now because we are under the regime of another managerial class strategy. And that class has consistent interests, values, and dispositions. However, to simply call every manifestation of a managerial class regime communist (or fascist) is not only to impoverish accurate analysis, it also blinds us to the important differences between managerial class strategies, which can have difference-making consequences for those who aspire to resist or change such a regime.
I concede, both, that it’s a perfectly obvious question to ask how I think such theoretical imprecision might manifest in strategic or tactical failure, and that I don’t have an obvious example to offer. Though, that line of thinking would be missing the point. With a bit of effort, no doubt, I (or any reasonably creative person) could reverse engineer such an example. But what would be the point of that; the risk one can anticipate isn’t the real risk. It’s the one that isn’t, maybe cannot be, anticipated that poses the danger.
Knowing – and responding to – how one’s theory gets the strategic questions wrong is in fact a backhanded way of gradually, through trial and error, edging toward incrementally correcting the theory. There’s a cost though to trial-and-error correction (the accumulation of errors) which can be avoided by beginning with a less misleading theoretical framework. There are always going to be ways in which you didn’t know you were wrong. It seems wise to at least eliminate the ways in which you know you’re wrong. A branding that either is simply incorrect or inclines people to misunderstand or misinterpret your claims strikes me as a good place to start such elimination.
My point, then, I hope is clear; I don’t make these criticisms to be theoretically finnicky – though being so may indeed be my nature. Rather, I believe, both, in the interest of simply understanding the world, we need more precise, granular understanding of these issues; and that any aspiration to challenge any regime needs to be as accurate as possible in understanding what precisely it is up against. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with my substack. While I appreciate Lindsay’s theoretical efforts and his promotional activism (the latter for which I don’t have the personality-type), I feel his contribution could be more valuable if he was less inclined to emphasize these click-bait analogies.
Maybe I’m wrong; maybe pressing people’s buttons with these well-worn tropes, really is the way to motivate people to take political action in the immediate circumstances. I am concerned though about the consequences of such a shortsighted ploy. Managerial liberalism is not Marxism; as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the theoretical assumptions and historical contexts are different. Likewise, the world that managerial liberalism aims to build is not the same as communism, nor fascism, even though it obviously resembles both in different ways — as both are earlier (though failed) forms of managerial revolution strategy.
Recognizing similarities, of course, can be valuable. At least as valuable, though, is being astute about vital differences. Failing to do the latter is a recipe for being blindsided and overwhelmed. To return to the world of military metaphor with which we began: do not become the old French Generals, fighting the last war. While you’re diligently building up your Maginot Line, the managerial class is figuring out how to drive tanks through the forest. It didn’t work for the French Generals. I’m afraid, long term, it won’t work for the populist insurgency, either.
He’s far from the only one who does this; some others engage this rhetoric out of a lazy or ill-informed reflex. Unlike them, Lindsay seems to have put a lot more thought into his rhetorical choices, so I’m hoping I might be able to appeal to his reason to persuade him to reconsider that choice.
The social democratic “revisionism” of those like Kautsky and Bernstein; the colonialism revisionists like Lenin and Fanon; and those who Lenin dismissed as proponents of Left-Wing communism (in his words, “An Infantile Disorder”), like Pannekoek and Luxemburg, could all be considered in this camp of – to one degree or another – distancing themselves from orthodox Hegelian Marxism. Though of course it has always been de rigueur for these revisionists to claim that they were in fact the true heirs of Marx. Interestingly, the most famous revisionists, though, the so-called Western Marxists, such as Lukács and Gramsci, arguably aspired to re-found Marxism’s Hegelian foundation against the deviations of Leninism and the Bolsheviks. There was a constant struggle over these concerns in Marxism throughout the 20th century. Plus, of course there’s us right-wing (Schmittian?) Marxists, in which category I’d also include Sam Francis, Paul Piccone, and James Burnham – as well as a European school that I’m only beginning to explore: e.g., Mario Tronti. Right-wing Marxists don’t tend to claim the mantel of the true Marx.
For Hegel that end point had already been achieved in the Prussian state of his own time. For Marx, of course, it was just around the corner – anticipated to begin its ascent in either Germany or maybe the U.S.
To be clear, we are talking about theories, here. How they manifest in real life is always a complicated matter.
For example: James Burnham, Cornelius Castoriadis, Milovan Djilas, Alvin Gouldner, and Paul Piccone.
I appreciate some might object to this wording. The Frankfurt School guys were not facing potential death in the U.S. as they would have faced in Germany of the 1930s. However, one should keep in mind that — while in 20th century Europe Marxism has always had serious intellectual cache and respectability — in the 1920s the U.S. reformed its immigration laws, dramatically reducing new arrivals, precisely in response to the chaos and violence caused in the country from decades of importing various European communist and anarchist immigrants. There wasn’t much of an appetite for that sort of thing in American society of the 30s.
I’m aware that Lindsay emphasizes that the founders of CRT called themselves Marxists. The problem is that either one is using the phrase Marxism in a precise way, which presumably would be as Marx himself did, or one is referring to one of the many diverging claims to revisionist Marxism. As I’ve demonstrated in the text, the former case wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the latter case, one should be precise about which revision(s) one has in mind. And so, back to my point that “critical theory” probably is the right choice of language to describe the “Marxism” of the founders of CRT, in which case CRT doesn’t need to be corrected as Race Marxism and doing so only clouds the relevant theoretical issues, posing the risk of misguided analysis resulting in strategic or tactical failure. What I’d of course argue instead is that CRT has to be re-situated in the context of managerial liberalism.
See note 4.