Behind all social crimes lurk something like ideas. And behind all simulated ideas reside something like intellectuals — or at least people who take it upon themselves to put such simulations to the page. While conservatism has always had its intellectuals, a new breed of purported “national conservatives” or “populists” have emerged to furnish rationalizations for America’s latest crimes. What recent violence has been abetted by these rationalizations? The encaged migrant children? The celebrated murders of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher? George Floyd’s eight minutes and 46 seconds of remaining life? The hundreds of thousands lost or ravaged by a pandemic as it spreads largely unchecked? Beyond the grisliest facts, what of the less sensational ones? The tax cuts for the rich? The corporate deregulations? The ballooning defense budgets? The national security state’s ongoing tormenting of the already tortured people of Venezuela or Iran?
And which quasi-thinkers spring to mind when we contemplate these horrors? Compelling answers abound. The primetime xenophobe Tucker Carlson is certainly a candidate, even though the Fox News demagogue can scarcely be deemed a person of letters. Something similar could be said for Steve Bannon’s faux populism. More serious possibilities can be found in the archives of the Claremont Review of Books or American Affairs. If I were pushed to name just one figure, though, it would be someone closer to home.
As a leftist Jew, there is little in the Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s project with which I can identify. And yet, at a deeper register of memory, milieu, and affect, I can’t help but find the man and his work all too familiar. His politics are far from mine, yet they do mirror the politics of my past. They also mirror the politics of so many I know, and even those I love. They aren’t so much made up of cogent thoughts as they are anxieties striving for justification. At the dawn of another threatening social transformation and frantic backlash, Hazony’s politics are best appraised, in Lionel Trilling’s memorable formulation, as “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
As president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation in The Hague and the impresario who oversaw last year’s much ballyhooed National Conservatism Conference in Washington, Hazony is as close as one gets to being an official spokesperson for the newest iteration of right-wing intellectualism. Reading his recent cri de coeur in Quillette, “The Challenge of Marxism,” it is hard not to hark back to the Trilling quip. To summarize the piece in a single sentence is to betray its almost theatrical incoherence: Marxism, which is synonymous with any set of emergent demands to render an unfree and unequal society freer and more equal, at once proceeds from the liberalism of yore, amounts to liberalism fully realized, and represents the gravest threat to liberalism’s most cherished practical form—democracy—which is why liberals must abandon liberalism and join forces with conservatives to defeat Marxism in order to defend democracy.
This adds up to an emetic mouthful, surely, but only when parsing the argument’s discrete premises do its most absurd ingredients come to the fore. Hazony begins by grouping all progressives or leftists under the umbrella of “Marxist,” and then defining all these ostensible Marxists in the most reductive of terms. His bêtes noires, which allegedly encompass the Democratic Party base, are committed to four Marx-inspired convictions:
1) the world is characterized by a split between “the oppressor and the oppressed,”
2) everyone suffers “false consciousness” before becoming awakened to the true state of their oppression,
3) the violent and “revolutionary reconstitution of society” and the destruction of the oppressor class is both inevitable and welcome, and
4) the Marxist capture of the state and the ensuing reconstitution of society will result in the “total disappearance of class antagonisms.”
Further eyebrow-raising claims follow.
As Asad and Shuja Haider have noted, it would certainly be news to admirers of Michel Foucault, for example, that the French philosopher both rejected structural definitions of power and adhered to the nineteenth-century German communist in dividing society between oppressors and the oppressed. Marxists themselves, like the Haiders, would be just as surprised, since Marx’s dialectical approach to history depicted capitalist class relations as fluid and contradictory and capitalism as a whole as both oppressive and liberating.
Hazony is on firmer ground when he discusses “false consciousness.” It is true that Marxists see capitalism as a mystifying force that can obscure exploitation. And it is just as true that there have been Marxists who have built vanguard parties, in some cases through the use of violence, to awaken people to their oppression and mobilize against it. But the bulk of contemporary socialists have absorbed the insights of historians like E.P. Thompson in seeing class consciousness as forged from the bottom up by individuals and communities comprised of contingent experiences, customs, prejudices, and agencies. And it is not only socialist academics who recognize this. The greater part of the organized left, especially in the United States, have put stock in spontaneous movements from below, and progressives have been winning on the electoral terrain, where they are confident—and they have the poll numbers and studies to prove it—that most voters already support their agenda.
It would be odd if the left represented by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ilhan Omar, a left so invested in social movement models of slow-going electoral change, were to also moonlight as Marxist-Leninists bent on violent revolution, but this is what Hazony would have us believe. As for Marx’s prophecy of a post-capitalism defined by classless peace, this might still be the dream of some, but most of us are just fighting for a future where we can live relatively healthy and happy lives without sociopathic states and society-wrecking (never mind earth-shattering) corporations.
Hazony goes on to concede a few merits of his conjured “Marxism,” particularly its attention to “power relations.” In fact, as the Princeton Tory would have it, Marxian analysis is useful, not because it has anything helpful to say about the systematic depredations responsible for the needless misery and deaths of billions, but because it helps to unveil the persecution involved in secular public schooling, the exploitation entailed in pornography, and the occasional excesses of private property rights that lead to the offshoring of labor. The analysis and deconstruction of power relations, it turns out, is a worthwhile endeavor if it results in an expedient olive branch to crucial white working-class allies. But such analysis suddenly becomes futile when it concerns items reckoned beyond the pale by men like Hazony.
It is not that these concerns of Hazony’s aren’t legitimate. In any society that prizes religious freedom, government schooling must abstain from funding or superintending sectarian instruction. This can make things difficult for those who prefer such instruction as a public provision. If enough people fall into this category, they can organize and vote accordingly until such provisions are given. Short of that, they can push to integrate as much non-sectarian study of religion as their compatriots will allow. A similar logic holds for pornography. Those seeking to limit or ban the practice can lobby as they see fit while the rest can advocate on behalf of stronger labor protections for sex workers. Citizens can also champion a more just and equal political economy where those disinclined to sex work aren’t forced toward such employment. As for offshoring, the left doesn’t need to be lectured on the need to democratize global markets in trade and labor. The left’s concerns about the undemocratic nature of these markets are so sincere it has answers on offer that go well beyond the narrow chauvinist and coalitional appeals of the Trumpist nationalists.
Contrary to Hazony’s protestations, most progressives or leftists today would not dispute that some groups will always get their way more than others. They do not seek a world without power or coercion. Rather, they seek a world in which the contours of such power and coercion are shaped as democratically as possible; that is, one in which everyone’s voice is given an equitable say in the arranging and re-arranging of social norms and laws. Later in his essay Hazony writes:
“[L]iberalism creates Marxists. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, it constantly calls into being individuals who exercise reason, identify instances of unfreedom and inequality in society, and conclude from this that they (or others) are oppressed and that a revolutionary reconstitution of society is necessary to eliminate the oppression. It is telling that this dynamic is already visible during the French Revolution and in the radical regimes in Pennsylvania and other states during the American Revolution. A proto-Marxism was generated by Enlightenment liberalism even before Marx proposed a formal structure for describing it a few decades later.”
Other than the implication that the Movement for Black Lives or the Sunrise Movement is readying itself to establish another dictatorship of the proletariat, there is little here with which to quibble. As scholars like Cedric Robinson have taught us, there are noble traditions of dissent alive and well in the Americas and elsewhere whose roots cannot be traced to the European liberal tradition. Yet one would be hard-pressed to deny the lines that run from Adam Smith, Voltaire, and Condorcet to Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Thomas Paine to John Stuart Mill, Robert Owen, and Fannie Wright to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Friedrich Engels, and Marx. Frederick Douglass made explicit that it was the United States Constitution that demanded his liberation, and likeminded opponents of racial capitalism like Martin Luther King and Ocasio-Cortez have done the same regarding the Declaration of Independence.
For many on the left, democracy marks liberalism realized, and socialism marks democracy fully realized. Lest you think he agrees, Hazony goes on to inquire as to why “liberal societies produce a rapid movement toward Marxist ideas, and not an ever-greater belief in liberalism?” For a world-renowned academic, it is curious that he has yet to discover Nordic social democracy, Basque socialism, Kerala communism, or for that matter, Franklin Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights. Had he known of such things, he would have no doubt stopped assuming an opposition between left programs and liberal democratic norms. Such dispensations might not allow for publicly financed religious instruction, and they might even tolerate pornography, but when it comes to avoiding the kinds of dystopian police states or militarized plutocracies Hazony prefers in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel, or Trump’s America, they do quite well.
But of course Hazony knows of such things. It is those things, and not empty signifiers (at least in his hands) like “liberalism” or “Marxism” that he has devoted his life to opposing. And what are those things exactly? Unshackled from their bugaboo abstractions, they become less haunting: Universal and high-quality housing, healthcare, and education; strong labor rights, representation, and workplace democracy; basic income, job, and social security guarantees; well-funded public goods like parks, libraries, or recreational venues; democratically-financed and managed research and development and Internet; green infrastructure and regulation; a popularly controlled financial sector; a humane immigration policy that focuses on regulating capital rather than terrorizing the most vulnerable; robust civil rights and civil liberties protections; and a foreign policy that checks militarism while encouraging healthy and egalitarian partnerships.
Although Hazony and his fellow intellectuals and activists appear to stand athwart most of these measures—and it is the blocking of such measures that energize them—it is not these arrangements that he has in mind when he writes that “We have entered the phase in which Marxists, having conquered the universities, the media, and major corporations, will seek to apply this model to the conquest of the political arena as a whole.” No, the red herrings he would like his readers to perseverate over involve the totalitarian “delegitimization” of the country’s true victims, from noted down-and-out reformer Tucker Carlson to destitute emancipationist Josh Hawley to martyred subversive Bari Weiss to imprisoned dissident Tom Cotton. Like the columnist Eric Levitz and others, count me as someone who is troubled by certain intolerant or punitive sectors on the left. Also count me as someone who recognizes the yawning moral chasm between the grievances of those arrayed against the carceral archipelago or the military-industrial complex and those who think cheerleaders for a harrowing status quo should be granted carte blanche immunities. Most of all, count me as someone who believes it is the capacity of communities to forever negotiate the boundaries of acceptable or unacceptable discourse that composes the democratic freedoms, particularly the freedoms of association, that Hazony is supposed to support.
When one takes the time to read beyond the bluster, it becomes clear that “The Challenge of Marxism” constitutes one gargantuan act of special pleading. For one, it takes extraordinary tendentiousness to claim Marxists have overrun higher education, media, and the uppermost reaches of corporate power when the owners and managers of all three inhabit overwhelmingly Republican or “Third Way” orbits. Both the petty and haute bourgeoisie are mostly on the right. A handful of center-right to far-right billionaires have commandeered the bulk of the news industry—national and local—manifested daily in the quality of the journalism. Universities have become union-busting corporations where the opinions of most Americans (not just those on the top) are nevertheless fairly represented, including, as the centrist Niskanen Center has borne out, those of conservatives. And to the extent censorship or free speech chilling effects are a problem, it is a problem that exists across the spectrum, and one that men like Hazony are just as culpable for as anyone else, specifically when it comes to speech pertaining to Israel and Palestine.
This final point gets to the heart of the matter. Hazony concludes his manifesto with the following:
“Liberals will have to choose between two alternatives: either they will submit to the Marxists, and help them bring democracy in America to an end. Or they will assemble a pro-democracy alliance with conservatives. There aren’t any other choices.”
But the political philosopher, needless to say, is not really interested in defending democracy. Or at least its defense is conditional on who is demanding it. When it is anti-pornography activists or religious school voucher advocates raising a ruckus, the quest for democracy is permissible. When it is authoritarians voting in droves—in an electoral system that assigns generous handicaps to rural white residents while suppressing black and brown ones—to tyrannize, round up, incarcerate, or deport to their death entire populations, that too is welcome. Citizens coming together to hold politicians and reactionaries accountable for the aforementioned horrors and their web of excuses for them? Millions showing up on the streets, largely peacefully, to protest them? Not so much.
For all his pretense of high-minded seriousness, Hazony’s pseudo-idea — one that has animated much of Trump-style politics at home and abroad — proves both vulgar and ancient. I would be up in arms if a major educational arm of a prestigious university were named after Louis Farrakhan. I imagine Hazony would be, too. I wouldn’t be up in arms if the same institution were named after Angela Davis, although I wouldn’t find pressure to honor someone else illegitimate either. I would just find it wrongheaded. And I would say so, democratically. Hazony, on the other hand, believes the successful push to do away with the eponym of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton signals a bona fide war against democracy — this despite Wilson having been an outright racist. When all is said and done, then, what Hazony objects to isn’t the retreat of democracy, but its enlargement. It is the newfound power afforded to historically powerless groups that rankles him. Democracy for me and not for thee, said every reactionary, ever.
In The Virtues of Nationalism (2018), Hazony played the same game, except this time it was “the nation” rather than “democracy” that he pretended to care about so dearly. Likewise, “imperialism” stood in for “Marxism” as the bogeyman. The main themes, though, run parallel. People like Hazony deserve their own nations, while others, for “prudential” reasons, do not. The latter group includes the Palestinians. Imperialism (which is just Hazony’s word for any form of internationalism he doesn’t like) is bad when it holds accountable human rights violators in the United States, Israel, or Hungary, but good when it refers to the imperialist or settler-colonial projects that founded, maintained, or expanded those very nation-states.
Hazony’s posited utopia isn’t one in which nation-states interact with one another as peaceful equals, but one in which preexisting wealth and power imbalances between the global North and South, and particularly between the United States or its allies and the rest of the world, remain intact. It is one in which those imbalances become exacerbated since such a utopia would be liberated from any liberal or left internationalist checks or balances. It is, in fact, the very utopia his favorite governments—Trump and Netanyahu’s foremost among them—along with institutions of global capital he never mentions, are busy bringing into being.
Hazony speaks of “rights” and “democracy” and “national self-determination” when it is convenient. But at other times his prose morphs into something more deadly honest. In his Quillette screed, for example, he lets it slip that
“… in most cases, hierarchical relationships are not enslavement. Thus, while it is true that kings have normally been more powerful than their subjects, employers more powerful than their employees, and parents more powerful than their children, these have not necessarily been straightforward relations of oppressor and oppressed. Much more common are mixed relationships, in which both the stronger and the weaker receive certain benefits, and in which both can also point to hardships that must be endured in order to maintain it.”
It is not that he is wrong, per se. Again, Marxists and Foucauldians alike would concur that such relations of power are complex. The difference is that, as Hazony’s oeuvre and political allegiances lay bare, he is confident such complexities justify these and related hierarchies. In The Virtues of Nationalism, he argues that one of the central criteria for whether a people requires a state is whether they are strong enough to have one. Might is right, in other words.
Batyar Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor at The Forward, in an accolade for Hazony’s book on nationalism, gushed that it “belongs among the great works of political theory… [It] presents a radical, even dangerous thesis: what if nationalism is not the scourge that today’s left views it as, but rather the best hope humanity has? The Virtue of Nationalism mounts a necessary challenge to the liberal order of the day.” She is not the only center-left voice to praise Hazony’s politics. It is revealing that Hazony got his journalistic start at the publishing house of Martin Peretz’s The New Republic, back when the magazine represented bien-pensant Democratic Party opinion. This speaks to the ways in which so many self-avowed liberals are already closer to Hazony’s worldview than either he or his critics care to admit. In both cases, calls for freedom, equality, and democracy can only go so far, and only in so many directions. And the measurements of that distance or direction are all too often determined by those already enjoying such liberal amenities.
That said, Hazony and his far-right associates around the globe are unique in their stridency. When not hiding underneath performative appeals to nationalism or democracy to rationalize their aggression, they hide underneath pronouncements of “tradition.” The whole point of nationalism and democracy, as they tell it, comes down to preserving this or that tradition. For Hazony, the traditions of interest are Judaism or Jewishness. Except that tradition, like all others, is contested. It is sustained by competing traditions, some of which are at remarkable odds with one another. The one I subscribe to is the one of Martin Buber, Henrietta Szold, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky, Peter Beinart, Bernie Sanders, and the Black Panthers of Israel. It is one that is always endeavoring to stretch the limits of freedom and equality rather than police them. That means discerning our struggles in the struggles of those around us, which means standing alongside the persecuted and pogromed while welcoming more and more into the fold of liberation. It is a tradition that sees the progression from the Book of Exodus to Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Go Down Moses” as something to exult in rather than something to fear.
There are too many in my life, alas, who subscribe to another tradition, a tradition that centers on fear. Born in the shadow of Stalin, Hitler, or the Holocaust, their fear is understandable. But the ideological gesticulations that have come of their fear are inexcusable. There is never an excuse for refusing to tend to those crying for mere life and freedom for fear of losing one’s own. Even more, there is never an excuse for responding to their cries with further contempt and violence. This is a lesson my people have taught their fellows more than once. It is a lesson many, Jewish and otherwise, keep forgetting. It is one that many still remember and live by, and one some, like me, take time to learn. It is also one that men like Hazony loathe. But we must not conclude that this is because men like Hazony have a “tradition.” We all have our traditions. What makes Hazony’s tradition so dangerous is that it is so terribly cruel, thoughtless, and afraid.
Lyle Jeremy Rubin has contributed to a variety of publications. He is currently writing a book about masculinity, the military, and America’s forever war.