Speaking at the National Conservatism conference in Miami last week, Sen. Marco Rubio denounced the “small, out-of-touch elite” that he said is “in charge of every major institution in American society.” He went on to explain that “what they’re engaged in … is Marxism.” The Florida Republican isn’t alone in warning against this resurgent red menace. In recent years, a wide array of conservative think-tankers, pundits, and politicians has insisted that the right’s enemies—whether state agencies, Democratic politicians, or woke Fortune 500 companies—are, in fact, “communists” or “Marxists.”
In this, ironically, they resemble no one so much as their antagonists on the left, for whom everything wrong with the current moment, from crumbling Western unipolarity to growing populism, can be boiled down to “fascism.” Indeed, the National Conservatism conference has itself been branded as fascist (or at least “semi-fascist”).
We are living through a period of remarkable change that has unsettled the placid end-of-history worldview that prevailed after the fall of the Soviet Union. From populist challenges to neoliberal orthodoxy to worldwide Covid lockdowns to the corporate embrace of radical identity politics to a land war in Europe, much of what we have been witnessing would have been difficult to predict a decade ago. Given this bewildering panorama, it’s hardly surprising that political analysis has retreated back into the familiar narratives of a bygone past.
The problem isn’t that there are no parallels to be found with earlier eras, but that the standard approach to such comparisons ends up flattening the historical picture. In liberal “fascism” talk, Weimar Germany is reduced from an era riven with contradictions and tensions into a morality play; Mussolini stops being a political actor with a certain specific history—a soldier in World War I, a disillusioned socialist revolutionary, a hardcore Italian nationalist and futurist—and becomes a transhistorical avatar of evil.
The “fascist” accusation functions either as a cheap polemic, or worse, a substitute for political analysis. If your enemy is a fascist, there is nothing to understand: Fascism is simply an ideological demon that possesses people and must be exorcized.
The same temptation exists on the right. Attempts at casting “neo-Marxism” as the true name of the enemy are fairly common, and often less than illuminating. In a much-hyped debate between Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson back in 2019, Žižek asked Peterson who these “Marxists” were he believed were undermining civilization. Was he talking about Sam Gindin? David Harvey? The editors of New Left Review? How influential are these people today? Peterson couldn’t answer, because he didn’t know.
When you are fighting people you imagine are simply vessels for some sinister transhistorical force, you rarely bother to try to figure out who they are, what distinctions they themselves consider important, or what they actually believe or why.
You also gain little sense of what particular interests their political projects serve. We see plenty of this willful ignorance among progressives when they label protesting truckers as fascists, rather than examine the specific objections that triggered the revolt. But no less incorrect are conservative insinuations that big firms endorse radical academic ideas about race and gender because their CEOs wish to bring about communism.
Resorting to analogies is understandable in periods of change. But the tendency risks making it impossible to comprehend the present on its own terms. Perhaps the person who best formulated this problem was none other than Karl Marx, who wrote that in “periods of revolutionary crisis, [radicals] anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.” In his own time, Marx noted, “the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795.”
America today, and the Western world more generally, may well be headed toward their own, fully 21st century version of “revolution”: some sort of massive social and political turning point. Indeed, given the dramatic changes we are all living through, future historians may argue that the upheaval already started some years back.
That’s the real tragedy of these staged battles on the left and on the right against the conjured ghosts of 20th century, whether “fascism,” “communism,” or “neo-Marxism”: The combatants imagine that by fighting these ghosts, they can somehow resurrect the old world, that we can go back to a time before Trump or populism or wokeness or FBI raids on Mar-a-Lago. But we can’t.