The Mystical Body of Karl Marx
Noah Smith recently posed an important question on Twitter. Why do conservatives demonize universities as bastions of left-wing ideology? Isn’t it possible that the ideology is simply popular because the ideas are, well… good?
He chooses Andrew Sullivan as the poster child for this fixation on the dangers of hyper-liberal academia. Sullivan, the blogger-turned-essayist, warned of creeping intellectual authoritarianism in a February 2018 New York Magazine Article, *We All Live on Campus Now.*
The short answer to Noah is that ideas — especially popular ones — can’t be separated from the tactics and institutions where they originate. Sullivan is speaking to his colleagues in the academic world because they are closest to the source of ideas. He sees certain ideas, including the suppression of conservative voices, threatening his own speech and identity as an independent voice in the LGBT community.
Conservatives mostly worry about those pockets of the humanities that have been coopted by intellectual mob rule. But Andrew Sullivan — a cosmopolitan and liberal by almost any definition — is merely trying to conserve a modern balance in which traditional norms like monogamy are broadened to include same-sex couples, but not bulldozed in favor of radical sexual liberation.
Sullivan’s article demonstrates that a sufficiently articulate conservative or independent can still safely contradict left-wing orthodoxy, but there is clearly a shrinking margin for error. The transition to the current, oppressive milieu happened fairly suddenly, when the old guard of liberals was replaced with an avante garde of radicals.
When I attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate from 2007 to 2011, I could still comfortably speak my mind as a conservative libertarian. Now, it seems that free inquiry has been replaced with inquisitorial suppression of wrong-think. The resulting “chilling effect” brings the average students’ attitudes much closer to a uniform party line. This poses a threat for liberals and conservatives alike, but might be especially worrisome for progressives who value academic inquiry above ideology.
Why are Postmodern ideas so appealing?
High Priests of a New Cathedral
Even the progressive liberal tradition to which Noah Smith belongs is distinct from the cultural Marxism Sullivan decries. Sullivan diagnoses the problem with today’s intellectual culture as a tyrannical small-mindedness masquerading as compassionate open-mindedness. You are “woke” (i.e., awakened to the real injustices in the world) only if you can see everything through the lens of a few narrow conflicts: Men versus women, binary gender versus non-binary gender, racial minority versus racial majority, etc.
But these are half-truths masquerading as the truth, which makes them the enemy of truth. Conservatives have taken to labelling humanities professors focused on specific grievances as “cultural Marxists,” because they embed more radical normative ideas about restructuring society within a framework of positive social science, much like Marx did with the economic science.
Jordan Peterson has explained cultural Marxism in terms of a single body made up of many individuals that collectively espouse a complete worldview, which he identifies as postmodernism.
Postmodernism is known for its skepticism of all grand “meta-narratives” — master ideas that give meaning to our experiences and help us understand the stories of our lives. Yet for all of its skepticism about story-telling, it has only managed to replace the old stories, including the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, with one gigantic meta-narrative: the oppressor versus the oppressed.
Since “language is oppression,” to use the words of postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, the postmodernists have been determined to co-opt the institutions that develop ideas and structure the meaning of words — the universities. And they have been successful.
There is a parallel between Peterson’s embodied metaphor for the postmodern cult and the Christian church, which is supposed to mysteriously incarnate the body of Christ.
Individually, billions of Christians hearing sermons, worshiping, and meditating on scripture come to a partial understanding of how they are to imitate Christ in their unique situation.
Likewise, students inculcated in postmodern critical theory are given an identity and mission in the assignments they receive from their professors — the high priests of academia. The doctrines thus become distributed in a patchwork across the minds of the thousands of disciples. We can call the resulting body the Mystical Body of Karl Marx. Independently, none of the individuals in our universities embody or can articulate the whole philosophy, but together they exist a real entity.
The Mystical body of Karl Marx enters history as an inversion of the church. It demands nothing in the way of faith, rooting its ideology in purely evident historical processes and mechanical scientific reasoning. Marxism views humans as primarily tool-using animals, lacking any spark of the divine or need to develop their spiritual capacity. Where Christ demands forgiveness and non-resistance to evil, Marx offers a rationalization and encouragement towards resentment and envy, and suggests that the means of violence justify the ends of eventual peace. Where Christ makes possible an identity that transcends ethnicity and gender, cultural Marxism creates a hierarchy of victimhood that amplifies artificial differences (like race), flattens real ones (like sex), and in Slavoj Zizek’s words, “Ordains transgression as the new norm.”
Marxism even offers an alternative version of salvation, in which the rich and powerful are terrorized by the masses into submission, rather than punished in the afterlife.
The Corruption of Education
In his tweet storm, Smith wonders why conservatives invoke shadowy cabals like “the Cathedral” to explain the presence of popular uniform ideologies. Perhaps it is because this “Cathedral” actually exists — not as a central committee, but as an entity every bit as real as the church throughout history. In terms of wordly power, the church has been declining for several centuries, while the “Cathedral” has gained immense mindshare through the arts, academia, and mainstream media.
Modern institutions of higher education are the inheritors of a system invented by the Scholastics — Catholic scholars of the Middle Ages. Harvard, et al., were originally training schools for Protestant ministers. Over time, universities became places where all ideas could be explored — from hard sciences (i.e., natural philosophy) to the humanities.
A subtle distinction lies at the foundation for the university’s atmosphere of free inquiry. It is the ability to take tradition as a valuable foundation and deposit filled with wisdom, but not the end-all-be-all. In other words, the old words are not the last word, but they are still to be highly regarded.
Liberalism Under Threat
Like all simplified ideologies that demand little sacrifice from their adherents — including all utopian strands of libertarianism, nationalism, fascism, and socialism — cultural Marxism will continue to have broad, shallow appeal.
Like the gospel message, Marx’s workers’ paradise (and its less transparent postmodern equivalent) is presented as a cause that cannot wait for our lethargic institutions to catch up. The urgency is understandable, but the modern Marxist remedy comes in an inverted form relative to the gospel.
First, it uses force and suppression to achieve its aims. Second, it parodies the impulse towards justice with a false inclusiveness: the social justice movement seems only to unite its members around opposition to those who it excludes, and it keeps widening the group of “oppressors” that must be excluded in order to maintain unity. Yesterday it was just privileged white males, but today the “other” includes gay white males, straight white females, cis-gendered minorities, and independent liberals like Sullivan.
As progressive allies in the academic humanities begin to feel the chilling effect of their more radical colleagues, they will have to choose whether to be assimilated into the mystical body of Karl Marx — with all of its restrictions on free thought — or abandon the university as the home of rational progressivism.
Conservatives, who haven’t had much of a voice in the humanities for decades, are wrong to fear the state of affairs as much as they do. However, Sullivan’s article should function as a warning to liberal academia to clarify what it stands for, since postmodernism and its bullying tactics do pose a threat to progressivism. Unless dogmatism is shored up, the backlash to the postmodern mutation of liberalism may roll back the progressive victories that have been won without intimidation tactics.
Fortunately, the divisiveness of cultural Marxism makes it inherently unstable. Going back to the mystical body of Marx metaphor, the leg is not cooperating with the torso, which is not cooperating with the arms, which only occasionally gets a signal from the head. But this flailing body may do a lot of damage to the credibility of academia, the arts, and the media before it self-destructs.