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The Synthetic Revolution

How the old Marxism evolved into a new orthodoxy.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of a speech I delivered recently at the David Horowitz Freedom Center retreat in New Orleans, Louisiana.

If you have followed David Horowitz’s work over the years, you can think of my work, in a sense, as a continuation of what he’s done, updating the public on the radical Left’s “long march through the institutions.” Rather than recapitulate the history of 1968 to the present—which you can read in my book—I’d like to give you a sense, not of the continuity, but of the change between now and then.

The first element is a change in position. In the late 1960s and mid-1970s, the radical Left was very self-consciously on the outside and felt that it was excluded from American life and American institutions. Its ideology was a fringe ideology that traveled on the periphery. Its political coalition was constituted, in some sense, in an organic way. As Herbert Marcuse said, it was an alliance between the sons and daughters of the middle class—white intellectuals on college campuses—and the disadvantaged, predominantly African-American radicals in the inner cities. This coalition wasn’t sponsored by institutions. It wasn’t well funded. It had to operate through this organic and somewhat spontaneous collection of people who were gathering on campuses, in the streets, and at small storefront training centers.

All of this has changed. This is no longer a movement of outsiders. This ideology has been absorbed on the inside, from the K-12 school system, to university humanities departments, to the human resources and DEI departments of Fortune 500 companies, which have all absorbed the ideologies now known as critical race theory, gender ideology, and “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” It’s moved from the streets into the bureaucracy, from the fringes to the center of American life. It constitutes the new orthodoxy. If you’re sending your children to the median K-12 school or the median university, whether public or private, this is the orthodoxy. It is enforced with the power of the state, with the power of the institutions, with the power of law, and with the power of culture.

It’s important to understand that the radical Left has moved from an organic constellation of intellectuals, activists, and other figures to a synthetic constellation of political actors—meaning, these ideas are now part of our bureaucratic life. They are incentivized bureaucratically and administratively, rather than bubbling up from below. The Italian Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci in the early 20th century said that the great hope for the Communist Revolution lay in what he called “organic intellectuals,” people who had developed revolutionary consciousness when they were working in the farms, factories, and industrial centers—a grassroots vision of revolution.

Now, we have a total inversion of this dynamic. We have “synthetic revolutionaries” who are highly credentialed. They march up the cursus honorum, or the scale of credentialing, in our society. They adopt these ideologies, not as authentic commitments, but, in many cases, as very cynical trappings: “This is what I’m supposed to believe and, therefore, I will say the words.” We see this almost everywhere, and, for many people, it’s a matter of institutional survival. They affirm the orthodoxy because they don’t want to get fired.

The second element that I’d like to address is the change in the ideology. If you read David Horowitz’s books, you’ll find some of the history. At the early point, the radicals of the ‘60s and ‘70s were self-described Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. For them, the great heroes of their time were the Third World liberation fronts that were violently overthrowing colonial powers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. If you take their rhetoric at face value—which, in many cases, you can, because there is a certain honesty in their words—they wanted a change in political regime. They wanted to overthrow the United States, the Constitution, and the capitalist economic system, and bring about a Communist or socialist system of governing and political economy. If you read the pamphlets of the Black Panther Party, they are almost charming in their naïveté. They say, “We are going to take over the Ford factories and start building buses for the proletariat, for the people of the inner cities.”

I say it’s “almost charming” because they are signing up for a lot of hard work. It’s actually difficult to make cars, to run factories, and to be productive. But this desire has totally changed now. The critical race theorists never talk about taking over a car factory or running a great industrial enterprise. They know that they’re not equipped to do it, and they have no desire to do it. They no longer want to seize the means of physical and industrial production; they want to seize the means of cultural and knowledge production. This is a big shift. They believe that if they can change the language we speak, the symbols we use in public life, they can change the country.

Conservatives have mocked postmodern theory, which is based in part on the idea that everything is reducible to language and that, if you control the discourse of a society, you can control the society at large. But in rejecting this philosophy out of hand, conservatives are making a mistake. The postmodern case for the primacy of language might be overstated, but it also contains a kernel of truth. In many cases, if you control the language that is promoted as public orthodoxy, you make it very hard to escape. Accordingly, the synthetic revolutionaries have determined, in a partial and contingent way, that controlling the language is more important than controlling physical production. Their idea, if we play out the theory to its conclusion, is that when you control the language and culture sufficiently, it’s easier to take control of the economy. And you can do it not by going to the factory floor and installing car doors, but by controlling the law and legislation. In this way, language is transformed into economic power by indirect leverage, rather than by direct control.

Another change to reflect on is how the radical Left now defines equality. How did Karl Marx or the orthodox Marxist-Leninists of the mid-century period define equality? It was equality of condition—put crudely, everyone having the same stuff. It was a material equality, or, as conservatives like to say, “equality of outcomes.” Subsequently, however, this process has been a perpetual disappointment, because equality of outcomes never comes to pass. Look at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, for example: we currently spend approximately $1 trillion per year on means-tested welfare benefits in the United States. It’s an enormous expenditure. And yet, our rate of economic inequality has slightly increased since these programs were initiated, and cultural inequality—family patterns, rates of drug addiction, suicide deaths, etc.—has grown dramatically. The bottom stratum of the United States is worse off than before, despite this massive effort.

Consequently, the Left, operating from within the bureaucracy, is no longer interested in equality of rights, as the Founders envisioned, or even equality of conditions, as the Marxists envisioned. They have begun to pursue what I call psychological equality, or “equality of the spirit.” The rhetoric about privilege, the theory of intersectionality, the categorical imperative of “trauma”—the dynamic of oppressor-oppressed—is now interpreted psychosocially, rather than materially. The institutions are no longer promising simple transfer payments. The state, the school, the university now serve as a means of psychological conditioning. The individual who has racial privilege, which is attached to shame and guilt, has to be taken down a notch psychologically. The individual who does not have racial privilege, on the other hand, is provided with training about racial joy and then promoted upward in the hierarchy through the intervention of the bureaucracy.

Yet despite all these efforts, we have a society that is more miserable than ever. I always think about these issues in terms of the American Founders, who saw very clearly that the end, or the telos, of political life is to create happiness, properly understood, in an Aristotelian sense. And a decent heuristic as to how well our society is doing is to measure happiness. Is our government leading us toward happiness as a people? I think the answer is clearly no. In fact, the more that the radical Left gains power within the bureaucracy and pushes its ideologies on the people, the less happy the people become.

Which leads us to the final question: How do we create an opposition? What are the means of opposing the forces of ideological capture and the politics of “diversity, equity, and inclusion”? We find ourselves, institutionally, with very little at our disposal. So what do we do?

To answer this question, we must acknowledge the status quo. I use the label “conservative” because it’s convenient to signal where my political loyalties lie. I’m part of the conservative movement—those are my friends, colleagues, collaborators. I have a relationship with the conservative political party, but “conservative” is, in a sense, not a functional label for what we have to do. The project of conserving the institutions and the transmission of the founding principles of our country has already failed. Conservatives who adopt the posture of the establishment are deluding themselves because, in reality, we are now on the outside, the fringes, the margins. Our ideas—the ideas of the founding of this country—are no longer the public orthodoxy. Consequently, it’s not a matter of conserving the institutions as they are; it’s a matter of going on offense and changing the institutions into what they might be.

First, we must re-establish the political. I often hear people say, “I don’t want to make this political. I don’t want to be controversial. I want to avoid conflict.” These people are not well-equipped for politics, because politics is political. If you criticize the public orthodoxy of the day, you’ll be automatically labeled as someone who is controversial. You have to accept this. Then you can begin to submit these institutional questions to the political process. You can begin to ask, why are conservative taxpayers paying for DEI bureaucracies and public universities? Why are they paying for departments of gender theory, which, as an intellectual matter, are equivalent to a department of witchcraft or astrology?

This is precisely the project that I have worked on this year: persuading state legislators that they did not have to fund radical, left-wing DEI bureaucracies in state universities. The people, through their legislators, are the ultimate authority over the structure and values of public institutions, and if they decide that they do not want to promote DEI as the official orthodoxy of state institutions, they can lobby their legislators, who can write a bill to abolish those departments and send it to the governor’s desk for signature. And that’s exactly what happened in the State of Florida. These DEI bureaucracies, which offer no academic value, are no longer permitted in the state’s public universities.

Second, we should appeal to and enact a sense of pluralism. This is where small “c” conservatives can play that conservative function, which is to say that the existing institutions of civil society—the family, the church, the school, the civil association—should be protected. This means digging trenches around those institutions, creating space where those institutions can survive. The sociologist Max Weber talked about “value spheres.” This is a productive way to consider our local institutions that haven’t been captured by these ideologies: the neighborhood, the small town, all those little institutions that operate at a human scale, of which there are still many. Conservatives must invest their time, money, and energy into these institutions and declare, “This is important. This is what we believe. This is where we will stand and protect these values, within the sphere of activity in civil society.”

The third tactic is an institutional siege. If you think about the primary shapers of national life—the federal government, the Fortune 500 companies, the large K-12 school systems, the universities—they are all institutions that must be submitted to public deliberation, to a political process, and to a contestation of values. In a constitutional republic, this means submitting them to basic rules, which are determined through the Constitution and the legislature, the ultimate authorities over the great public questions. We must ask: Where are our institutions headed? What do our institutions believe? Which values do our institutions transmit from one generation to the next? These are the fights we must have. The greatest leverage for conservatives is political power—more specifically, the political power of the legislatures, which must ensure that the values of their constituents, of their citizens, are reflected in the public institutions.

This is, in one sense, simple, and in another sense, very difficult. Because it requires people who are willing to fight both in media, politics, and other domains. And it requires, ultimately, replacing one system of values with another. It is tough work. We must be willing to say, “We have an institution and now we’re going to bring in new people, new values, new policies, and new priorities.” The challenge is great—we must begin this process across a wide range of institutions—but, if we understand our opponent and have an abiding faith that our republic is still functional, we can win elections, translate values into law, and reform the institutions so that they are governed in the best interest of the people.

This is the work of a generation or more. This problem developed and metastasized over the course of many decades. It will take many decades to fix it, but ultimately, this is the fight we must face. If we have political convictions, it is not hopeless, but rather, salutary, to understand just how difficult the task is ahead, because it gives us a sense of realism and perspective. Many generations before us have waged more difficult fights than ours. For the time being, ours is a fight over language, words, symbols, bureaucracy. We should maintain hope—this is the fight ahead.

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Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo