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Marginalizing Conservative Ideas

By: David Horowitz | Tuesday, December 01, 1998

PEOPLE WHO IDENTIFY WITH THE LEFT often ask the following question: How is it possible for decent human beings not to be progressive like us? How can they not share our concern for social justice or the better world we are attempting to create? The answers offered by progressives are that ignorance clouds the understanding of others and that social privilege blocks their human responses. In the eyes of progressives, their conservative opponents are prisoners of a false consciousness that prevents them from recognizing human possibility. This false consciousness is rooted in the self-interest of a ruling class (or gender, or race), which is intent on defending the system that secures its privilege. In other words, opposition to progressive agendas grows naturally from human selfishness, myopia, and greed. To progressives, theirs alone is the vocation of reason and compassion.

The Right has questions too: How is it possible for progressives to remain so blind to the grim realities their efforts have produced? How can they overlook the crimes they have committed against the poor and oppressed they set out to defend? How can they have learned so little from the history their ideas have engendered?

Progressives have a false consciousness of their own. Being so noble in their own eyes, how could they not be blind? But this blindness also springs from an insularity created by their contempt for those not gifted with progressive sight. As a result, radicals are largely innocent of the ideas and perspectives that oppose their agendas. The works of von Mises, Hayek, Aron, Popper, Oakeshott, Sowell, Strauss, Bloom, Kirk, Kristol and other anti-socialist thinkers are virtually unknown on the Left excluded from the canons of the institutions they dominate and absent from the texts they write. This silencing of ideological opponents in the areas of the culture the Left controls has led to a situation which one academic philosopher lamented as "the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and the social sciences in the universities." The same judgment cannot be made about the excluded conservatives who are forced by the cultural dominance of the Left (and by the historic ferocity of the radical assault) to be thoroughly familiar with the intellectual traditions and arguments that sustain it. This is one reason for the vitality of contemporary conservative thought outside the academy.

Following the collapse of the socialist empire the marginalization of conservative ideas in the academic culture has been so pervasive that even those conservatives whose analyses were dramatically vindicated by the events continue to remain hopelessly obscure. As far back as 1922, Ludwig von Mises wrote a 500-page treatise predicting that socialism would not work. Socialist theorists, he wrote, had failed to recognize basic economic realities that would eventually bankrupt the future they were creating. These included the indispensability of markets for allocating resources, and of private property for providing the incentives that drive the engines of social wealth. Moreover, socialists showed no inclination to take seriously the problems their schemes created: "Without troubling about the fact that they had not succeeded in disproving the assertion of the liberal school that productivity under socialism would sink so low that want and poverty would be general, socialist writers began to promulgate fantastic assertions about the increase in productivity to be expected under socialism."

As close as any analysis could, Von Mises warning anticipated the next 70 years of socialist history. Under the Soviet Unions central planning, the Kremlin rulers were indeed unable to allocate resources rationally, or to promote technological innovation, or to replace the profit motive with a viable system of non-monetary "social" incentives. As a result, the socialist economy was unable to keep abreast of the technological changes that would catapult the West into the post-industrial era. The socialist economy could not even create sufficient growth to feed its own people. Once the breadbasket of Europe, Soviet Russia under socialist planning became a chronic importer of grain, an economy of forced rationing and periodic famine. The effect of socialist order was exactly as Von Mises had predictedthe generalization of poverty and the crippling of productivity, so that Russia was unable to enter the information age and compete economically with the West.

Although history has dramatically confirmed Von Mises analysis, and just as dramatically refuted his left-wing opponents, his intellectual contributions are as unrecognized today as they were before the Communist fall. While the intellectual tradition that gave rise to Von Mises insights is marginalized in American universities, and its paradigm ignored, Marxism and its variants flourish. The profusion of Marxists on university faculties is, in fact, unprecedented, and the theories that Marxism has spawned now provide the principal texts for the next generations. While Von Mises writings are invisible, the works of Stalinists, ignorant of the most basic economic realities of how modern societies function, are familiar to most undergraduates. In the humanities and social sciences, the discredited tradition of Marxism has become the intellectual well-spring of the main schools of current academic theorycritical studies, cultural studies, historicism, structuralism, post-modernism, and radical feminism. The comparable schools of conservative and libertarian thought are hardly extant within university walls.

It is hardly necessary to add that no serious attempt has been made by progressive intellectuals to re-visit Von Mises critique. Or to come up with answers that would justify the respect now accorded to the bankrupt intellectual tradition of the Left, or arguments that would warrant this revived commitment to a discredited faith. Given the verdict of history on the socialist experiments, Von Mises works and others that derive from the tradition of classical liberalism should provide the central texts of any respectable academic discourse. Instead they are so marginal to the university curriculum, it is as if they had never been written.

In contrast to Von Mises fate, Stalinist intellectuals like Antonio Gramsci, Eric Hobsbawm, and Walter Benjamin have become icons of the left-wing professoriate, their writings re-issued in scholarly editions, their texts well-thumbed by undergraduates, and their ideas developed and refined in doctoral studies. Despite its dismal record of collusion and failure, the tradition of the Left is intellectually dominant in the American university today in a way that its disciples would never have dreamed possible thirty years agoas though the catastrophes produced by its ideas had never taken place.

Von Mises of course is not alone. His disciple, Friedrich Hayekto take another representative exampleis equally obscure in the academic culture. The theoretical edifice Hayek created is, like Von Mises, as comprehensive as Marxs, and has been vindicated by the same history that has refuted Marxist ideas. Hayek has even been awarded a Nobel prize in economics. Yet the name Hayek is all but absent from the discourse of the Left, and from the academic curriculum the Left has designed. Typically, Hayeks mature works on capitalism and socialism are rarely if ever mentioned in the broad intellectual culture, their arguments never confronted. The average college graduate is acquainted with whole libraries of radical blatherthe re-packaging by third-rate intellects of discredited Marxist formulas in the works of bell hooks, Frederic Jameson, Derrick Bell, Andrew Ross, Richard Delgado, and Catharine MacKinnonbut has never opened a text by the most important figures of twentieth-century social thought.

An ideological omerta is the Lefts response to its vindicated critics, especially those who emerged from its own ranks. It is an intellectual version of Stalins efforts to transform his political opponents into "unpersons," in order to obliterate their influence and ideas. The historian Aileen Kraditor, once a star in the firmament of the academic Left, is a less prominent intellectual figure than Von Mises and Hayek, but no less illustrative of the method by which the Left deals with its critics. The books Kraditor wroteThe Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism, and The Radical Persuasionwere once routinely cited by Sixties progressives as models of the scholarship radicals produced. But then Kraditor had second thoughts and departed the radical ranks. As a pioneer in feminist scholarship, Aileen Kraditor would have been a prime candidate for high honors in todays academy. But she had the bad judgment to become an anti-Communist and to write a book puncturing the radical illusion. As a result, it is as though she had never existed, and never written.

Based on her own experience as a member of the Party during the height of the Cold War, Kraditors last book set out to describe the intellectual world-view of American Communists. Jimmy Higgins: The Mental World of the American Rank and File Communist, 1930-1958 is the definitive study of its subject. Yet, despite an explosion of academic interest in the history of American Communism, Kraditors work is almost never referred to and almost never cited, its insights never engaged by the academic community. Instead, Communist sympathizers like Princetons Ellen Schrecker and NYUs Robin D.G. Kelley, have become preeminent academic authorities on the historiography of American Communism, while Aileen Kraditor has been made an unperson in the intellectual culture.

This politically motivated censorship and self-enforced ignorance insulates the Left from uncomfortable encounters with former comrades and necessary truths. Defectors from the radical ranks quickly discover that their ideas are ignored and their realities erased. It is the way a bankrupt intellectual tradition enforces its academic rule. The unwritten law of the radical intellect is this: Once the revolutionary idea has been called into question, the questioner must cease to exist. In a democracy, this extinction may be accomplished by personal smear or ideological exclusion. But it is required in order to preserve the faith. To the religious mind, the thought of Gods death is unthinkable.


David Horowitz is the founder of The David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of the new book, One Party Classroom.



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