“Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.”
“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”
Angelo M. Codevilla writes: The notion of political correctness came into use among Communists in the 1930s as a semi-humorous reminder that the Party’s interest is to be treated as a reality that ranks above reality itself. Because all progressives, Communists included, claim to be about creating new human realities, they are perpetually at war against nature’s laws and limits. But since reality does not yield, progressives end up pretending that they themselves embody those new realities. Hence, any progressive movement’s nominal goal eventually ends up being subordinated to the urgent, all-important question of the movement’s own power. Because that power is insecure as long as others are able to question the truth of what the progressives say about themselves and the world, progressive movements end up struggling not so much to create the promised new realities as to force people to speak and act as if these were real: as if what is correct politically—i.e., what thoughts serve the party’s interest—were correct factually.
Communist states furnish only the most prominent examples of such attempted groupthink. Progressive parties everywhere have sought to monopolize educational and cultural institutions in order to force those under their thumbs to sing their tunes or to shut up. But having brought about the opposite of the prosperity, health, wisdom, or happiness that their ideology advertised, they have been unable to force folks to ignore the gap between political correctness and reality.
Especially since the Soviet Empire’s implosion, leftists have argued that Communism failed to create utopia not because of any shortage of military or economic power but rather because it could not overcome this gap. Is the lesson for today’s progressives, therefore, to push P.C. even harder, to place even harsher penalties on dissenters? Many of today’s more discerning European and American progressives, in possession of government’s and society’s commanding heights, knowing that they cannot wield Soviet-style repression and yet intent on beating down increasing popular resistance to their projects, look for another approach to crushing cultural resistance. Increasingly they cite the name of Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), a brilliant Communist theoretician for whom “cultural hegemony” is the very purpose of the struggle as well as its principal instrument. His writings envisage a totalitarianism that eliminates the very possibility of cultural resistance to progressivism. But owing more to Machiavelli than to Marx or Lenin, they are more than a little complex about the means and are far from identical with the raw sort of power over culture enforced by the Soviet Empire or, for that matter, that is rife among us today.
My purpose here is to explain how progressives have understood and conducted their cultural war from the days of Lenin, and how Gramsci’s own ambiguous writings illustrate the choices they face in conducting that war in our time and circumstances—especially with regard to political correctness in our present culture war.
Every form of progressivism bases itself on the claim of a special, “scientific,” knowledge of what is wrong with humanity and how to fix it. The formula is straightforward: the world is not as it should be because society’s basic, “structural” feature is ordered badly. Everything else is “superstructural,” meaning that it merely reflects society’s fundamental feature. For Marx and his followers that feature is conflict over the means of production in “present-day society.” From the dawn of time, this class warfare has led to “contradictions”: between types of work, town and country, oppressors or oppressed, and so on. The proletariat’s victory in that conflict will establish a new reality by crushing all contradictions out of existence. Other branches of progressivism point to a different structural problem. For Freudians it’s sexual maladjustment, for followers of Rousseau it’s social constraint, for positivists it is the insufficient application of scientific method, for others it is oppression of one race by another. Once control of society passes exclusively into the hands of the proper set of progressives, each sect’s contradictions must disappear as the basic structural problem is straightened out.
But wherever progressives have gained power, all manner of contradictions have remained and new ones have arisen. Progressive movements have reacted to this failure by becoming their own reason for being. Theoretically, the Revolution is about the power and necessity to recreate mankind. In practice, for almost all progressive movements it is about gaining power for the revolutionaries and making war on those who stand in their way. For example, transcending private property, the division of labor, and political oppression was never Marxism-Leninism’s core motive any more than worker/peasant proletarians were ever its core protagonists. In fact, Communism is an ideology by, of, and for ideologues, that ends up empowering and celebrating those very ideologues. This is as true of progressivism’s other branches as it is of Marxism.
Lenin’s seminal contribution was explicitly to recognize the revolutionary party’s paramount primacy, and to turn the party’s power and prestige from a means to revolution into the Revolution’s candid end. Lenin’s writings, like Marx’s, contain no positive description of future economic arrangements. The Soviet economy, for all its inefficiencies, functioned with Swiss precision as an engine of privilege for some and of murderous deprivation for others. The Communist Party had transcended communism. The key to understanding what progressive parties in power do is the insight, emphasized by “elite theorists” like Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, that any organization’s practical objectives turn out to be what serves the interests and proclivities of its leaders.
What serves progressive revolutionaries’ interests is not in doubt. Although each of progressivism’s branches differs in how it defines society’s “structural” fault, in its own name for the human reality that it seeks to overcome, and in the means by which to achieve its ends, progressives from the 19th century to our time are well nigh identical in their personal predilections—in what and whom they hate even more than in what they love. They see the culture of what Marxists call “bourgeois morality” as the negation of their identity and authority. That identity, their identity, is to be promoted, endlessly, by endless warfare against that culture. That is why the cultural campaigns of otherwise dissimilar progressives have been so similar. Leninist Russia no less than various Western democrats have tried to eradicate religion, to make it difficult for men, women, and children to exist as families, and to demand that their subjects join them in celebrating the new order that reflects their identity. Note well: cultural warfare’s substantive goal is less important than the affirmation of the warriors’ own identity. This is what explains the animus with which progressives have waged their culture wars.
Yet, notwithstanding progressivism’s premise that individual minds merely reflect society’s basic structure and hence are incapable of reasoning independently about true and false, better and worse, reality forces progressives to admit that individuals often choose how they think or act despite lacking the “structural” basis for doing so, or that they act contrary to the economic, social, or racial “classes” into which progressive theories divide mankind. They call this freedom of the human mind “false consciousness.”
Fighting against false consciousness is one reason why Communists and other progressives end up treating cultural matters supposedly “superstructural” as if they were structural and basic. They do so by pressuring people constantly to validate progressivism’s theories, to concelebrate victories over those on the “wrong” side of history by exerting control over who says what to whom. Read the rest of this entry »