Forward. Just, well...Forward!

If Marxist rhetoric were outlawed from today's political discourse, many progressives would be rendered mute.  Consider President Obama's recently unveiled 2012 election slogan, "Forward!," which has a clear consonance with socialist ideologies of the interwar era.

Turns out that "forward" in Italian is "avanti," which happened to be the name of the official rag of the Italian Socialist Party in the first half of the twentieth century.  From 1912 to 1915 its editor was some guy named Mussolini.

"Forward" in German is "vorwärts" and in Russian "vperyod."  These, too, were the names of socialist newspapers of the same era.  The former was the principle organ of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.  On its pages appeared the work of Engels and Trotsky, among other socialist intellectuals.  "Vperyod" was the name of a publication founded by Vladimir Lenin in 1905.  The word also appeared in the title of the newspaper "Forward for Stalin" (note: its Cyrillic transliteration is "Вперёд").  Presently it is the name of a radical left-wing political organization in Russia.

Undeniably, "forward" has established a place in the socialist idiom.  Was this known to the Obama campaign beforehand?  In a recent article for this publication, Paul Kengor unearthed intriguing connections between key Obama advisers and early Soviet sympathizers, suggesting that the campaign might well have been aware of the historical use of the term.  

What's also possible, however, is that today's progressives are simply at home with much of the rhetoric of earlier authoritarian regimes.

The degree to which Marxist rhetoric -- the most militant of all modern socialist ideologies -- pervades Western public policy and discourse is shocking.  It is both amusing and disturbing to see so many politicians, conservatives, and progressives, but mostly the last of these, make a show of rejecting doctrinaire socialism and then, in the next breath, draw upon explicitly Marxist frames to support their socialist or socialistic agendas.  Let me offer several examples:

First, progressives who argue against capitalism or its proxies -- e.g., Wall Street, Big Oil, the top 1% of income-earners -- often do so by employing the Marxist trope, illustrated below in a quotation taken from the Marxist bible, The Communist Manifesto, that suggests that acquisition of the fruits of a capitalistic system makes for a zero-sum game (emphasis added):

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property.  But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.1

Second, the idea that capitalism is an irredeemably antagonistic system that pits the bourgeoisie against the proletariat2 (i.e., the 1% against the 99%) is central to the Marxist (and progressive) narrative, as is the idea that workers are habitually exploited3 by a capital class that is determined to appropriate more than it "needs" and possesses a values system that makes it incompatible with society at large4.

Third, the notion that the proletariat is helplessly subject to "the vicissitudes of competition"5 and that, therefore, their only recourse is to sell themselves like commodities derives from the broader Marxist tableau that depicts workers as honorable and essential members of a society subject to decay and ultimately eradication in the face of modern industry6.  This ethos serves as the basis for much of the populist and class warfare rhetoric common today.

Fourth, when Marx and Engels deride "[t]he bourgeois claptrap about the family ... about the hallowed correlation between parent and child"7 and how the bourgeois "is not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians" and "take[s] the greatest pleasure in seducing each other's wives,"8 they presage a line of attack against individuals, and often conservatives, who espouse family values.

Fifth, the bias in favor of the urban and academically credentialed mimics a chauvinism present in Marxist thought, and one that remains largely a phenomenon of the left.  Economist Thomas Sowell observes that "Marx repeatedly disdained the capitalist entrepreneur as an uncultured 'parvenu' -- someone lacking bookish accomplishments, as if these were the universal litmus tests of contributions to society"9.  Engels and Lenin likewise believed that "managing a business was only a trivial skill"10.  And Marx and Engels wrote that urbanization has rescued many from what they deemed "the idiocy of rural life"11.

Suffice it to say that much of the modern progressive idiom owes quite a bit to Marx and Engels.  Not to quasi-Marxists or Neo-Marxists, but rather classical Marxist theory.

However, while many are willing to employ such rhetoric to decry capitalism, most understand that open support of socialist ideologies remains a losing strategy.  These self-styled technocrats reject the extremists of the left and right and instead advocate a "third way," a non-ideological midpoint between capitalism and socialism that emphasizes realism, pragmatism, and "what works."

President Obama has repeatedly been given credit for staking out such a position.  See this, this and this.

However, this "third way" approach also has its root in classical Marx.  In other words, when progressives seek to deflect charges of socialism, very often their principal defense is yet another invocation of Marxist thought.  Ludwig von Mises in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality explains:

When Marx and Engels ... advocated definite interventionist measures, they did not mean to recommend a compromise between socialism and capitalism.  They considered these measures -- incidentally, the same measures which are today the essence of the New Deal and Fair Deal policies -- as first steps on the way toward the establishment of full communism.12

Here is the relevant quotation from Marx and Engels (emphasis added):

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.13

So when The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson writes that "American capitalism is about to be supplanted not by socialism but by a more regulated, viable capitalism," he is chronicling and indeed cheering on an explicitly Marxist game plan.

A February 2009 cover of Newsweek observed that "We Are All Socialists Now."  Most are unaware that the phrase was first uttered in 1888 by Sir William Harcourt, who lamented the imposition of inheritance taxes in Britain.  Over the last century, a socialist rhetoric has insinuated itself into the Western cultural, political, and economic fabric.  It is now virtually indistinguishable from mainstream thought.

In sum, Marxism sought to lend rigorous scientific and empirical backing to an ancient ideology.  In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels presented a dramatic narrative of the evolution of the productive function and society through class conflict.  In Capital, Marx introduced theory and analysis in support of this narrative.  The latter work, as Sowell explains, fails to hit the mark:

Despite the massive intellectual feat that Marx's Capital represents, the Marxian contribution to economics can be readily summarized as virtually zero.  Professional economics as it exists today reflects no indication that Karl Marx ever existed ... Even economists who are Marxists typically utilize a set of analytical tools to which Marx contributed nothing.14

What of Marxism remains?  Only its narrative and, above all, its seductive rhetoric, which is deployed frequently, often unwittingly, and to great effect by many on the left.  But these are merely the glittery fragments of a pre-modern, utopian, ultimately magical ideology that has been thoroughly discredited because it has failed to offer, at its core, an economic system that can -- in the real world and according to its own standards -- outperform capitalism.

R. E. Bowse teaches in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts.

1Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. London: The Merlin Press, 2003, p. 15.

2Ibid, p. 4.

3Ibid, p. 5, 6, 8, 9 and elsewhere.

4Ibid, p. 13.

5Ibid, p. 8.

6Ibid, p. 11.

7Ibid, p. 17.

8Ibid, pp. 17-18.

9Thomas Sowell. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985, p. 219.

10Ibid, pp. 192-193.

11Marx and Engels. The Communist Manifesto, pp. 6-7.

12Ludwig von Mises. The Anti-Capitalist Mentality. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2009, p. 65.

13Marx and Engels. The Communist Manifesto, p. 19.

14Sowell. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, p. 220.