Some Marxists call the factors that interfere with judgment “false consciousness.” They argue that false consciousness accounts for the failure of revolutionary ideology to attract adherents among the working class in the developed world. On this view, it wasn’t outright repression or censorship that prevented the workers from adopting a Marxist perspective. It is was the subtle and concealed influence of capital on their ability to exercise their capacity to make their own decisions.
These tensions in Mill’s defense of intellectual freedom were recognized in the 19th century. What we now call political correctness was first articulated in the 1960s by the brilliant German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s achievement was to turn Mill’s argument for free discussion, at least in a modern Western society, against its explicit conclusion.
Marcuse undertakes this inversion, worthy of a black belt in dialectical reasoning, in the 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance.” In it, Marcuse argues that the marketplace of ideas can’t function as Mill expected, because the game is rigged in favor of those who are already powerful. Some ideas enjoy underserved appeal due to tradition or the prestige of their advocates. And “consumers” are not really free to choose, given the influence of advertising and the pressures of social and economic need. Thus the outcome of formally free debate is actually predetermined. The ideas that win will generally be those that justify the existing order; those that lose will be those that challenge the structure.
This prong of the argument is close to the standard critique of false consciousness. But Marcuse links it to Mill’s distinction between those who are and are not capable of participating in and benefitting from the unrestricted exchange of ideas.
According to Marcuse, many people who appear to be rational, self-determining men and women are actually in a condition of ideological enforced immaturity. They are therefore incapable of exercising the kind of judgment that Mill’s argument presumes. In order to make debate meaningful, they need to be properly educated. This education is the responsibility of those who have already shown themselves to be capable of thinking for themselves—in this case, left-wing intellectuals rather than Victorian colonial administrators.
One might wonder how either Mill or Marcuse could be so sure that their kind of people knew what was best for others. The answer is that they regarded the truth as obvious.
Marx’s critique is powerfully moral, not in the sense of establishing rules of right and wrong conduct but in the older sense of describing what it is for humans to be able to flourish, to be able to realize themselves fully. It was also cynical about the very idea of morality, or rather of what it had come to represent. For Marx, the concept of alienation, and of human flourishing, could not be wrenched away from the project of social transformation, of the overthrowing of capitalism itself.
…’The claim of Marxism to be a morally distinctive standpoint’, argues Alasdair MacIntyre, for many years a Communist Party member, ‘is undermined by Marxism’s own moral history’. Whenever ‘Marxists have had to take explicit moral stances’, they have ‘always fallen back into relatively straightforward versions of Kantianism or utilitarianism’. There is in Marx, MacIntyre suggests, an absence of thought about the moral underpinnings of social transformation. Marx excoriated the moral consequences of capitalism. He wrote of how human nature might flourish under communism. But he wrote little of the norms by which revolutionary social movements should be judged. One result was the wrenching apart of politics and morality in those movements and societies influenced by Marx. Social change came to be seen purely in political terms and its moral content defined solely in terms of the success of its political ends. The moral case for any action was that it furthered the cause. As a result, MacIntyre suggests, there is a moral hollowness to Marxism that could only be filled by looking elsewhere for moral answers, in particular to utilitarian ideas that the revolutionary means were justified by the revolutionary ends.
…By 2008, however, the possibility of change (at least in the way that Marx would have understood it) had become negligibly small. The depth of the economic crisis led to talk of a ‘crisis of capitalism’. And yet there was no political challenge to capitalism. Workers’ organizations had been destroyed, the left had imploded, as had the idea that there could be an alternative to the market system. The resurrection of Marx challenged none of this. Those who turn to Marx these days look upon him not as a prophet of capitalism’s demise but as a poet of its moral corruption. But to what extent does a moral critique that is explicitly hitched to a social critique remain meaningful when the possibilities of acting upon that social critique seem so to have faded? That, perhaps, is the most difficult question to be asked of Marx’s thought.
Liberal attitudes to conflict made a second point of contrast with their conservative and socialist rivals, following that over power. For liberals, conflict was ever present. It was unceasing and ineradicable. Whatever form it took, over interests, beliefs, or ways of life, the thought was that conflict must be tamed, transformed into competition, and made fruitful in trade, experiment and argument. Too much could be made of whether liberals welcomed conflict as healthy and productive or feared it as dangerous and destructive. They did both. Conflict, for liberals, was a fact of life. Politics was about how conflict might serve useful ends and not break society apart.
Conservatives took a different view of conflict. To them society was not by nature divided. Society was at root harmonious and unified. The myth of class conflict in particular was put about by resentful agitators and disaffected intellectuals. Diversity of opinion was not the welcome result of an unending conversation among equals but the regrettable consequence of truth’s failure to prevail over error. There were not many equally worthwhile paths in life to choose from but one path, the path of virtue. Conservative eyes were no worse than liberal eyes. Conservatives could see divisions in society. But to conservatives those divisions were not of society’s essence. To the extent that divisions existed within society, they represented for conservatives a fall from grace, a lapse into modernity, a loss of past unity.
The socialist left’s attitude to conflict was different again. It agreed with liberals that conflict in society was wide and deep, not that it was endless or inevitable. It disagreed with liberals about how many sides were involved. For liberals, conflict involved many, many sides and many, many matters. Conflict’s subject matter, in a sense, was unbounded. To socialists, conflict involved only two sides, rich and poor, and one topic, material inequity. Conflict would cease, they held, once its sources in material inequity were removed. Socialists disagreed with conservatives that society was harmonious until foolishly interfered with. They faulted liberals for refusing to see where the roots of one, overarching conflict lay. Those roots lay for the socialist mind in differences of material interest among unequal classes, differences from which other conflicts, notably of faith and opinion, invariably stemmed. Remove inequity and harmony came in all life’s departments. That, in crude summary, was the socialist dream of one-stroke emancipation. Although divided and denatured at present, society for the socialist left was by nature harmonious. There it agreed with conservatives, though not about structure or timing. For conservatives harmony lay in a hierarchical past, for the socialist left in a brotherly future.
Society for liberals was always in conflict. To liberals there never had been and never would be a time of harmony. The best hope was for a frame of order and stability that was flexible enough for adjustment as the forces in conflict changed. Such a frame would be “artificial” and man-made.” It would be neither God-given or natural but reliant on common interests in peace, stability and prosperity. Within it, private conflicts could be bargained away leaving no one with festering regrets that might threaten common interests.