The radical politics of Marx has defined the far left. This reflection upon The German Ideology considers the similarities between the radical politics of the far right and the far left to explain the ideology of radicalism. Justin Kempf places Marx in a tradition of radical thought alongside Nietzsche where the radicalism of the left and right begin to converge.
Radical Politics in America
The assault on the capital marks a new dimension in American politics. Democracy itself has now become the subject of political conflict. The rule of law is no longer a standard of consensus, but an obstacle some hope to overcome. American politics has long been a combination of liberal and conservative elements. Donald Trump symbolizes the introduction of a radical element.
Radicals are sometimes glorified because they refuse to obey or follow empty rules and traditions. The radical is portrayed as a hero who challenges authority. Americans have a cultural antipathy to authority, so it is surprising radical politics did not emerge earlier in the public sphere. But Americans are largely conservative. What Americans describe as radicals are often just reformers. They may challenge authority in their language, but there is almost always an affinity for American values and institutions.
The closest America came to a truly radical form of politics was abolitionism. Abolitionists genuinely wanted to tear down an institution. Indeed, William Lloyd Garrison believed it necessary to undo the entire constitution to abolish the institution of slavery. But over time fiercest supporters of abolition transformed from radicals into reformers. Frederick Douglass broke with the Garrisonians in his belief that the constitution was not inconsistent with abolitionism. And in the end, abolitionism found its hero in a reformer, Abraham Lincoln, rather than a radical. Slavery was abolished through the reform of the constitution.
The Radical Politics of Marx
Marx is a legendary figure among the left for his critique of capitalism. But his politics are lost among the left because Marx was a radical. The left, on the other hand, embrace the politics of reform. The difference is simple. Reformers recognize the problems in institutions, but they also recognize their value and potential. Radicals cannot see beyond the problems of institutions. Their solution involves abolition. Vast inequalities of wealth are a recurrent problem in capitalism, so Marx proposed the abolition of wealth. But he did not stop there. Marx saw the solution to the Jewish Question in the abolition of religion and the solution to sexual discrimination in the abolition of the family.
The left has become synonymous with its defense of an active government. Rather than abolish institutions, the left makes the case for the necessity to strengthen the state. Conservatism, of course, has warned against the growth in government. Among its most revered icons is Friedrich Hayek who wrote about the evils of state planning in The Road to Serfdom. The irony is Marx may have agreed with Hayek’s case against state planning. Marx’s solution, of course, was different. He believed in the abolition of the state.
The Left-Right Spectrum
Traditional left-right politics is portrayed along a single dimension. Typically, the divide in modern politics is portrayed along an economic dimension. The left wants an active government capable of redistribution of wealth, while the right wants a limited government without a redistributive element. The left-right spectrum recognizes there is space somewhere in between for consensus.
Lee Drutman points out this political framework is challenged when a second dimension is introduced. Economic issues remain salient in today’s politics, but cultural issues fuel political polarization. Some have introduced a two-dimensional map to better explain political ideologies. The new map offers four different points with significant space in the middle for a centrist position. Drutman goes on to argue American politics needs a multiparty system to represent this ideological diversity.
But Drutman misses a more dangerous third dimension the far right has introduced into democratic politics. Political parties have begun to call into question democracy itself. Anti-system parties challenge the constitutional order and threaten to tear it apart from within. Donald Trump has redefined the Republican Party as an anti-system party in the United States, but he is not alone. The Law and Order Party in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary have undermined key elements of democracy in their own countries over the past ten years.
Throughout the nineteenth century, debates over democracy marked the political divide between the left and the right. Monarchists represented the conservative element, while liberals gravitated toward democratic solutions. But American politics never had a monarchist element after the Revolution. Conservatives and liberals both supported republican government. Debates did exist on the extent of democratization, but the political divide was largely about the size, extent, and role of the federal government.
Anti-democratic sentiment became associated with the politics of the right because democratization meant an end to monarchical rule. Conservatives work to preserve traditions. Over time, they became defenders of democracy and constitutional governance because it became the foundation of contemporary political traditions. Of course, nothing about conservatism is inherently anti-democratic. In fact, democratic consolidation transforms conservatives into its staunchest defenders. Moreover, the communist revolutions of the twentieth century have demonstrated the presence of anti-democratic sentiments among the left.
Nonetheless, Friedrich Nietzsche is described as a conservative largely because his political philosophy focused on his opposition to democracy. Ironically, little else about Nietzsche comes across as conservative. He did not believe in God or religion. Moreover, his philosophy does not revere institutions, but rather glorifies the individual. He even abandons any regard for traditional norms or traditions. Everything becomes an obstacle for the individual to overcome through the pure force of their will.
Traditional institutions have a bizarre place in the Nietzschean universe. On the one hand, Nietzsche defends slavery and aristocracy because he believes some people are better than others. He openly writes about a slave and master mentality. But their inherent injustice is almost valued because it establishes challenges and obstacles. It can feel as though the aristocratic class exists for the purpose of displacement by a new generation.
Frederick Douglass describes a story in My Bondage and My Freedom where he fights back against Edward Covey. In this moment, Douglass reevaluates himself as a free being and casts aside his identity as a slave even though he does not escape until much later. Douglass has always resembled the Nietzschean hero to me. His redefinition occurs through a violent encounter made possible through his own will to power. It is ironic because Douglass largely rejects Nietzschean elitism.
The Radical Politics of the Right
Donald Trump is a perfect example of a more sinister Nietzschean hero. He has established his own sense of morality constructed around the characteristics necessary to win at all costs. Trump views democratic norms and traditions as obstacles necessary to disregard to achieve his own success. In many ways, Trump is even the perfect manifestation of Nietzsche’s nihilism. So, it is no surprise the radical sense of individualism Trump has unleashed has brought about violence in the capitol and the possibility of more violence with each passing day.
Nietzsche and Marx reflect different aspects of radicalism. The radical views institutions as obstacles for the individual. It is a paradigm where the destruction of institutions is valued more than their reconstruction. The left-right spectrum fails to capture their similarities. Additional dimensions to the political divide do nothing to clarify this failure. Instead, imagine the line between the right and the left as a curve. Eventually the radical extremes converge.
Hayek recognized the similarities between the far right and the far left. He described how some youths drifted between sympathies for communism and fascism. Indeed, common experience has shown it is easier for a left-wing radical to transform into a right-wing radical than to become a moderate or centrist. The far right and the far left are closer to each other than either is to the political center. But Hayek saw the similarities between the two as an affinity for the power of the state. His misdiagnosis has given libertarians and movement conservatives a false sense of confidence in their distance from totalitarianism.
The Ideology of Radicalism
Donald Trump has earned the respect from corners of the libertarian movement in his willingness to cut taxes and reduce regulations. Libertarians conflate authoritarianism with an expansion of the state. They fail to understand authoritarianism is about limitations to political freedom. Economic policies may have relevance but only indirectly. The radical nature of libertarianism makes it difficult to accept democratic political institutions because their political principles are tied to the policies of governance rather than its process.
Marx recognized the interdependence of institutions with one another. The nuclear family reinforced concepts like property and ownership necessary for a capitalist economy to thrive. The state established laws and infrastructure for the capitalist economy. Religion distracted people from class consciousness. Institutions reinforce each other so it is not possible to simply abolish wealth of private property. Marx believed capitalism was likely to reemerge unless society was entirely reimagined.
Nietzsche, on the other hand, understood the impossibility in the abolition of all institutions. Marx differs from Nietzsche because he cares about the ultimate destination. Nietzsche is a nihilist. He simply does not care where his extreme form of individualism will lead. He likely expects institutions to collapse under the weight of a strongman. Still, he anticipates their reconstruction simply so someone new may tear them down again. Either way, it is the destruction which captures his imagination rather than the process of reconstruction.
Marx as a Utopic or Nostalgic Thinker
Marx is often depicted as a visionary, but he devoted little time to the theoretical construction of his dreams. Instead, his classic works pick apart the inconsistencies of the capitalistic paradigm. He describes communism as something out of the distant past. He refers to the economies of ancient cultures as realized forms of communism. Like Rousseau, Marx believed the construction of modern institutions brought about more problems than they solved. The future for Marx was a return to the distant past. This is not a vision of utopia, but a nostalgia for what has been lost. And nostalgia is where the radicalism of the left and the right have often met.