Monday, May 14, 2007

Why don't the Marxists take off?

Ever since I first arrived at uni in the mid-80s campus activism has been dominated by Marxists. A number of small but highly dedicated groups have hammered away at the students, year after year, without much competition from any other activist organisations.

For all this, the Marxist groups have never taken off. They've never drawn a significant number of students to their ranks.

What limits the appeal of Marxism? A lot of students, perhaps, recoil from the general aims of Marxism. Marxists want to abolish countries, they want to overthrow the family, and they oppose gender differentiation between men and women. For a lot of students, this is a dystopian vision rather than a utopian one. Most students, in other words, value their national identity and their identity as men and women; most students also hope one day to have a family of their own. Why then should Marxism appeal to them?

So who is left to join the Marxist ranks? First, there are those for whom Marxist aims actually do seem liberating. For instance, a disproportionate number of those who join the little Marxist groups are homosexual. This makes sense, as homosexuals are more likely to react positively to the prospect of abolishing the traditional family and traditional versions of gender. Similarly, the more radically feminist of women might also approve of these aims.

The problem with this audience for Marxists is not only the limited numbers involved. It's also that such groups have their own political movements, targeted specifically to them. They don't need to wade their way through Marxist theory; nor are they likely to look up to the working-class, when workers are the most remote from their own lifestyle and politics.

So feminist and gay activists tend not to stick around. They're more likely to end up as academics, with a mixture of Marxist and "movementist" politics. They move on, and retain only tenuous links with the little campus groups.

So who else is there to fill the Marxist ranks? The radicalism of Marxism can appeal to those who are rebelling against authority. Often this will be paternal authority, so at times the Marxist groups can recruit very young people (15-year-old girls and 17-year-old boys).

But there are problems as well with this target group. First, it usually will only involve isolated individuals. The exception is when there is a more generalised sense of youth rebellion, a generation conflict. It's difficult to imagine this occurring again soon, though. There is no significant youth demographic on the horizon, and society is so culturally fractured now, that it's difficult to imagine solidarity along generational lines.

Anyway, two things are likely to happen to our anti-authoritarian youths. First, they're likely to discover that the new authority in their lives is the Marxist party itself, rather than Dad or the school principal. This authority is likely to be exercised with much less personal care; the result is that the party itself is often identified as the problem, leading either to an early exit, or else attempts at reform, internal divisions, splits and fragmentation.

Second, individuals do tend to mellow in their radicalism over time, so again the 18-year-olds are unlikely to be there in the long-term to build numbers.

Which leaves one other recruiting point for the Marxist groups. It's possible for people to join such groups seeking meaning in their lives. That's why the high-sounding talk of liberation, equality, brotherhood etc can be effective. It's a way for people to think that their life is serving some significant purpose.

It's possible for individuals joining Marxist groups to have their real interest at this more abstract level of idealism. They might not ever really have thought about, or be passionate about, the particular campaigns they find themselves involved in.

It's notable perhaps that Marxism in Australia reached a high-point from the 1930s to the 1950s, at a time when regular religion was losing its place amongst the intellectual class. Catholicism retained some of its vitality in Australia in this period, and therefore formed something of a line of resistance to Australian Marxism.

The people who find Marxism appealing as a secular religion do tend to be the "true believers" - those who maintain a lifelong commitment. They still most often are, in Australia, heterosexual Anglo males.

Yet, there aren't many of them. One reason for this is that Marxism requires its followers to "believe against belief". If you think that your life will be significant because you helped to bring about an international working-class revolution, then you will be depressed to find yourself part of a stagnant, tiny group of middle-class activists with no real chance of practically implementing your aims.

Nor does a political transformation of society really bring a genuinely religious meaning to life. The liberal philosopher J.S. Mill had a nervous breakdown when, as a young man, he asked himself whether he would really be content if all his political aims were to be practically achieved. He was honest enough to answer no.

This isn't to say that politics isn't important. It can't, though, provide the kind of meaning or purpose which those seeking a substitute religion are looking for.

So a Marxist organisation isn't likely to attract, or hold, large numbers of people as a kind of replacement church. As it happens, the pentecostal churches appear to be far more successful in appealing to young people alienated from modern society. I can't see the little Marxist groups competing successfully with the churches in this field.

For all these reasons, the Marxist groups haven't really benefited from their advantageous position on campus. As dedicated as they are, there's not an audience for them which can give them numbers or long-term appeal.


  1. Marxists certainly do not "take off" after or during their university experience.

    The reason why there are such low turnouts for campus elections (Quadrant 16/5/2005) and such abysmal support for Marxist Clubs on campus is not because most people disagree with what they say. On the contrary, most people on campus would describe themselves as 'progressive' and warm to leftist philosophy (which proves that leftist philosophy has made significant inroads into the minds of the majority).

    However, most of these students are also materialists, and with the degeneracy of the campus from a guild environment to one where degrees are obtained purely to facilitate promotion and/or higher earnings in one's future career, philosophical clubs will never attract anything more than a parochial minority.

    Consider that the Australian Liberal Students' Federation and it's affiliates, most notable of which would be the NSW Liberal Students' Association, often also have a difficult time attracting significant numbers into their ranks; this proves that Mr. Richardson's assessment is inaccurate at best.

    Other rightist organisations such as the Patriotic Youth League get far less support, and the support they do get is limited to very few campuses.

  2. Further to my post above, when I said that:

    'Marxists certainly do not "take off" after or during their university experience'

    I meant that they don't leave or abandon their ideology and agenda.

    By saying 'take off,' I think Mr. Richardson was saying that they don't grow in number and succeed etc.

    I claim that they certainly do. This is evident in how their ideology remains in the minds of students going through Australian universities.

    This it evidenced itself, through the broader culture war, which the left has been winning ever since the 1960s Revolution.

  3. I think Marxism has lost popularity among the youth in proportion to the rise in popularity of green politics. Environmentalism makes most Marxist theory redundant. That's why they used to attack green theory as "fascist" and "reactionary" before WWII – it was a threat to their entire philosophical worldview.

    Some on the Left now use it as a stick to bash "The West", but the green/left marriage can't last. Conserving anything naturally leads to illiberal politics.

  4. I do not believe that liberals and Marxists are as compatible as all that. Liberals, who worship autonomy above all else, can not really be attracted to the determinism of Marxism, which posits that class is the key driver of human affairs.

    I think there's even less of a marketplace for Marxist thinking in the student body then there is for a traditional conservative outlook. But because Marxists tend to be fanatical they make an impact far greater then their numbers.

  5. Scott, although there are distinctive features of Marxism, I think Marxism broadly fits into the category of radical left-liberalism.

    The ultimate goals of Marxism are autonomist just like those of liberalism in general. The idea is to create a free and equal new man, who, after the workers' state withers away, will be left autonomous, with no connection to nation, family or gender.

    It's noteworthy in this respect that after the Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik spokeswoman on the family, Alexandra Kollontai, announced a family policy in which the highest goal for women was to be independent careerists, with the state enabling this by taking over the care of children and domestic tasks.

    It's a program that the liberal West has gradually moved toward.

    As for determinism, it's true that Marxists stress this more than your mainstream liberal.

    However, even mainstream liberals are caught up in a contradiction here. Their politics are based on autonomy, but their cosmology on determinism.

    In other words, modernism consists generally of liberalism in politics and materialism in understanding the structure of the world.

    Materialism though is generally deterministic: most materialists think that there is no really existing free will, as all actions are caused by material effects.

    So there is a lack of coherence between liberal politics, in which the autonomous individual is to be self-created by his own will and reason, and a liberal cosmology, in which we are created by forces outside our control.

    There are liberals who are certainly aware of this difficulty in their own world view. Here, for instance, are some recent thoughts by an Australian Hayekian:

    " ... Hayek argues that there is no distinction between body and mind, and mind is simply a complex part of the body made up of neural fibres and synaptic conections (the brain). ... the logical conclusion from Hayek's epistemology is that there is no such thing as free will. Instead, all actions are determined by our biology ...

    For those ... such as Hayek ... there is no such thing as free will - defined as being able to make a decision other than the decision that naturally results from the inputs and processes of our brain.

    ... I still find it hard to accept that there is no free will. But the power of the deterministic argument seems strong ... I'm torn."