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.
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.
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.
The Road Not Taken
Few progressives have been humble enough to understand the Soviet experience and hence to search for a better path to replacing “bourgeois” culture with their own. Antonio Gramsci blazed such a trail, but, given its ambiguities, progressives have followed it in very different directions.
Gramsci started from mixed philosophical premises. First, orthodox Marxism: “There is no such thing as ‘human nature,’ fixed and immutable,” he wrote. Rather, “human nature is the sum of historically determined social relationships.” The modern prince’s job is to change it. Wholly unorthodox, however, was his scorn for Marxism’s insistence that economic factors are fundamental while all else is superstructural. No, “stuff like that is for common folk,” a “little formula” for “half-baked intellectuals who don’t want to work their brains.” For Gramsci, economic relations were just one part of social reality, the chief parts of which were intellectual and moral. He retained Aristotelian roots. For him, physical science is “the reflection of an unchanging reality” in which “teleology” and “final causality” exist. But orthodox Marxism and Aristotle come together in what he calls “the dialectic,” the point of which is to create a new reality out of the old.
Gramsci co-founded Italy’s Communist Party in 1921. In 1926, Mussolini jailed him. By the time he died eleven years later, he had composed twelve “prison notebooks.” In private correspondence, he criticized Stalin’s literary judgment and deemed his attacks on Leon Trotsky “irresponsible and dangerous.” But publicly, he supported every turn of the Soviet Party line—even giving his party boss, Palmiro Togliatti, authority to modify his writings. Imprisoned and in failing health, he was intellectually freer and physically safer than if he had been exposed to the intra-Communist purges that killed so many of his comrades.
Gramsci’s concept of “cultural hegemony” also swung both ways. Its emphasis on transforming the enemy rather than killing him outright was at odds with the Communist Party’s brute-force approach. His focus on cultural matters, reversing as it did the standard distinction between structure and superstructure, suggested belief in the mind’s autonomy. On the other hand, the very idea of persuading minds not through reasoning on what is true and false, good and bad, according to nature, but rather by creating a new historical reality, is precisely what he shares with Marx and other progressives—indeed with the fountainhead of modern thought, Niccolò Machiavelli.
Machiavelli is the point of departure in a section of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks that describes how the party is to rule as “the modern prince.” But the modern prince’s task is so big that it can be undertaken seriously only by a party (in some 50 references he leaves out the word “Communist”), which he defines as “an organism; a complex, collective element of society which has already begun to crystallize as a collective will that has become conscious of itself through action.” This prince, this party, has to be “the organizer and the active expression of moral and intellectual reform…that cannot be tied to an economic program.” Rather, when economic reform grows out of moral and intellectual reform, from “germs of collective will that tend to become universal and total,” then it can become the basis of the secularization of all life and custom.
The party-prince accomplishes this by being Jacobin “in the historic and conceptual sense.” Gramsci writes: “that is what Machiavelli meant by reform of the militia, which the Jacobins did in the French Revolution.” The party must gather consensus from each of society’s discrete parts by persuading—inducing—people who had never thought of such things to join in ways of life radically different from their own. The party develops “its organized force” by a “minutely careful, molecular, capillary process manifested in an endless quantity of books and pamphlets, of articles in magazines and newspapers, and by personal debates repeated infinitely and which, in their gigantic altogether, comprise the work out of which arises a collective will with a certain homogeneity.” But note well that the Jacobins used no little coercion to achieve their “nation in arms.”
Which is it then for Gramsci? Does the party inspire or perhaps cajole consensus—or does it force it? His answer is ambiguous: “Machiavelli affirms rather clearly that the state is to be run by fixed principles by which virtuous citizens can live secure against arbitrary treatment. Justly, however, Machiavelli reduces all to politics, to the art of governing men, of assuring their permanent consensus.” The matter, he writes, must be regarded from the “‘double perspective’…[that] corresponds to the double nature of Machiavelli’s centaur, beastly and human, of force and consensus, of authority and hegemony…of tactics and strategy.” Indeed that is Machiavelli’s point: whatever it takes.
As Gramsci noted, Machiavelli had argued that language is the key to the mastery of consciousness—a mastery more secure than anything that force alone can achieve. But note that Machiavelli’s metaphors on linguistic warfare all refer to violence. How much force does it take to make this historic bloc cohere and to keep recalcitrants in it? Gramsci’s silence seems to say; “whatever may be needed.” After all, Mussolini used as much as he thought he needed.
In sum, Mussolini, not Stalin; forceful seduction, not rape, is Gramsci’s practical advice regarding “cultural hegemony.”
Gramsci means to replace Western culture by subverting it, by doing what it takes to compel it to redefine itself, rather than by picking fights with it.
Regardless of what Gramsci wrote or meant about using the party-state’s power over cultural institutions to subvert and transform the rest of society, for the American Left cultural hegemony means using this power to suffocate Judeo-Christian civilization in its several cradles; to allow in public discourse only such thoughts as serve the identity of the party’s constituent groups; and to denigrate, delegitimize, and possibly outlaw all others. In short, it means political correctness as we know it.
Beginning in the 1960s, from Boston to Berkeley, the teachers of America’s teachers absorbed and taught a new, CliffsNotes-style sacred history: America was born tainted by Western Civilization’s original sins—racism, sexism, greed, genocide against natives and the environment, all wrapped in religious obscurantism, and on the basis of hypocritical promises of freedom and equality. Secular saints from Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama have been redeeming those promises, placing America on the path of greater justice in the face of resistance from the mass of Americans who are racist, sexist, but above all stupid.
Thus credentialed, molded, and opinionated, a uniform class now presides over nearly all federal, and state, government bureaucracies, over the media, the educational establishment, and major corporations. Like a fraternity, it requires speaking the “in” language signifying that one is on the right side, and joins to bring grief upon “outsider” Americans who run afoul of its members.
No more than its European counterparts does America’s progressive ruling class offer any vision of truth, goodness, beauty, or advantage to attract the rest of society to itself. Like its European kin, all that American progressivism offers is obedience to the ruling class, enforced by political correctness. Nor is there any endpoint to what is politically correct, any more than there ever was to Communism. Here and now, as everywhere and always, it comes down to glorifying the party and humbling the rest.
If cultural hegemony merely meant achieving the progressive ruling class’s near monopoly of America’s cultural institutions, the conflict ended a generation ago: the rulers won. But because the ruling class acts as if the old culture’s recalcitrant remnants merit ever more intensive efforts to crush them, cultural hegemony by P.C. means an endless cycle of insult and resentment, guaranteeing the conflict’s permanence. By contrast, Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony (following Machiavelli), sought a definitive victory: the transformation and synthesis of society’s several cultural strains into something that so transcends them that no one could possibly look backward—e.g., as Christianity obviated the gods of Rome and of the barbarians alike. Most important, Machiavelli, followed by Gramsci, sought cultural hegemony’s seal on power as a means to a greater end: for Machiavelli, that meant political grandeur like that of Rome (or maybe Renaissance Spain). For Gramsci, it meant achieving the Marxist utopia.
Why does the American Left demand ever-new P.C. obeisances? In 2012 no one would have thought that defining marriage between one man and one woman, as enshrined in U.S. law, would brand those who do so as motivated by a culpable psychopathology called “homophobia,” subject to fines and near-outlaw status. Not until 2015-16 did it occur to anyone that requiring persons with male personal plumbing to use public bathrooms reserved for men was a sign of the same pathology. Why had not these become part of the P.C. demands previously? Why is there no canon of P.C. that, once filled, would require no further additions?
Because the point of P.C. is not and has never been merely about any of the items that it imposes, but about the imposition itself. Much less is it about creating a definable common culture or achieving some definable good.
How Does This Movie End?
The imposition of P.C. has no logical end because feeling better about one’s self by confessing other people’s sins, humiliating and hurting them, is an addictive pleasure the appetite for which grows with each satisfaction. The more fault I find in thee, the holier (or, at least, the trendier) I am than thou. The worse you are, the better I am and the more power I should have over you. America’s ruling class seems to have adopted the view that the rest of America should be treated as inmates in reeducation camps. As Harvard Law School Professor Mark Tushnet argued earlier this year in a blog post, this means not “trying to accommodate the losers, who—remember—defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War.”
This vicarious yearning for the power of victors in civil war, however, has nothing to do with Gramsci, never mind with Machiavelli, who thought in terms of subverting the enemies one does not kill, rather than of reveling in breaking their spirit by inflicting indignities. People, he wrote, “are to be caressed or extinguished.” Insulting people who are not permanently disempowered is fun—but of the expensive and dangerous kind, because it engenders at least as much sullenness and revolt as submission.
Consider the main enemy: religion. America’s mainline Protestant denominations have long since delivered their (diminishing) flocks to the ruling class’s progressive priorities. Pope Francis advertises his refusal to judge attacks on Western civilization, including the murder of priests. His commitment of the Catholic Church to the building of “a new humanity,” as he put it at July’s World Youth Day in Krakow, opens the Catholic Church to redefining Christianity to progressive missions in progressive terms, a mission already accomplished at Georgetown University, Notre Dame, and other former bastions of American Catholicism now turned into bastions of American progressivism. Evangelical leaders seem eager not to be left behind. Gramsci would have advised that enlisting America’s religious establishments in the service of the ruling class’s larger priorities need not have cost nearly as much as Mussolini paid in 1929. Refraining from frontal challenges to essentials would be enough.
Instead, America’s progressives add insult to injury by imposing same-sex marriage, homosexuality, “global warming,” and other fashions because they really have no priorities beyond themselves. America’s progressive rulers, like France’s, act less as politicians gathering support than as conquerors who enjoy punishing captives without worry that the tables may turn.
But as the turning point against progressive cultural hegemony came to other lands, it seems to be coming to America as well. Gramsci had written of Machiavelli’s prince and of his own “new prince” that his realm would be one in which all good citizens could feel secure from arbitrariness. But arbitrariness is precisely what our masters of P.C. have fastened onto the American political system.
Consider our ruling class’s very latest demand: Americans must agree that someone with a penis can be a woman, while someone else with a vagina can be a man. Complying with such arbitrariness is beyond human capacity. In Orwell’s 1984, as noted, Big Brother’s agent demanded that Winston acknowledge seeing five fingers while he was holding up four. But that is small stuff next to what the U.S. ruling class is demanding of a free people. Because courts and agencies just impose their diktats, without bothering to try to persuade, millions of precisely the kind of citizens who prize stability have become willing to take a wrecking ball to what little remains of the American republic, not caring so much what happens next.
It is surprising that, in 2015-16, our ruling class was surprised by Donald Trump. Though he remained obedient to most of P.C.’s specific demands and remained largely a liberal Democrat, it sufficed for him to disdain P.C. in general, and to insult its purveyors, for Trump to become liberalism’s Public Enemy Number One.
The point is not Trump, but the fact that though the ruling class pushed Western civilization aside, it did not replace it with any cultural hegemony in the Gramscian-Machiavellian sense. Rather, by pushing P.C. defined as inflicting indignities, the progressives destroyed the legitimacy of any and all authority, foremost their own.
My 2010 article for the American Spectator, “The Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution,” argued that “some two-thirds of Americans—a few Democratic voters, most Republican voters, and all independents—lack a vehicle in electoral politics.” Resentment of the patent disregard for the Constitution and statutes with which the ruling class has permeated American life, along with its cultural war enforced by P.C., meant that “Sooner or later, well or badly, that majority’s demand for representation will be filled.” I noted: “Unfortunately, it is easier for anyone who dislikes a court’s or an official’s unlawful act to counter it with another unlawful one than to draw all parties back to the foundation of truth.”
That is because a majority of Americans—realizing that the Constitution and the laws have ceased to protect them from unending injuries to their way of life; aggravated by being insulted as “irredemable” and “deplorable” racists, sexists, etc.; eager for relief and, yes, for payback with interest; knowing that the ruling class is closed to argument from those it considers its inferiors—have no option but to turn the tables in the hope that, suffering the same kind of insulting oppression, the ruling class might learn the value of treating others as they themselves like to be treated. More likely, doing this would be one more turn in the spiral of reprisals typical of revolutions. And yet, there seems no way of avoiding this.
What is to be done with a political system in which no one any longer believes? This is a revolutionary question because America’s ruling class largely destroyed, along with its own credibility, the respect for truth, and the culture of restraint that had made the American people unique stewards of freedom and prosperity. Willful masses alienated from civilization turn all too naturally to revolutions’ natural leaders.
In short, the P.C. “changes in law and public norms” (to quote Galston again) that the ruling class imposed on the rest of America, rather than having “gradually brought about changes in private attitudes across partisan and ideological lines” as the ruling class imagined (and as Gramsci would have approved) have set off a revolution—of which we can be sure only that it won’t be pretty.