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Contra Fonte

Lately John Fonte's essay "Why there is a culture war" in the most recent issue of Policy Review has created a stir on the intellectual right. Fonte's argument is that the ideology of the Left today is best characterized by the thought of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, while that of the Right is descended from Alexis de Tocqueville. Fonte is no more than half-right, because his "Tocquevillians" themselves exhibit Gramscian tendencies.

That modern American leftish thought is Marxist, even in its non-economic elements, has long been the position of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Cultural Conservatism. Its head, Bill Lind, has found the origins of the Left's "Cultural Marxism" back to the Frankfurt School of German intellectuals, including Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. These men, in turn, were explicitly influenced by Gramsci. Lind traces this genealogy in his lecture at Accuracy in Academia's Conservative University.

Fonte is correct then about Gramsci's influence on the modern Left, if not wholly original. But more needs to be said, because Gramsci can tell us as much about the modern Right as he can the Left. Stripped of its Marxist ideology, Gramscian technique is the search for "false consciousness," the idea that certain oppressed groups have internalized the world view of their oppressors and so are unable to fight it. As an analysis this applies very aptly to many conservatives, particularly of the neoconservative variety. We find that they share basic assumptions with the Left and have therefore been ineffective against it. In fact, these conservatives are inadvertently abetting the Cultural Marxists.

James Kalb describes this situation in the Summer 2000 issue of Modern Age:

"The triumph of radical liberalism has made moderate conservatism, which assumes a social order defined in fundamental ways by non-liberal attitudes and practices, an empty position. A desire to seem thoughtful and aspirations toward something less thin than liberal ideology may lead public men to use the language of conservatism, but the substance is gone. Mainstream conservatism grumbles, drags its feet, and tries to moderate the disruption caused by implementing liberal demands, but it cannot deny the justice of those demands or deprive them of ultimate victory. It cannot even talk about them in language very different from that of triumphant liberalism." To put it another way, moderate conservatives have nothing to conserve except what the left has already accomplished. Just look at the withering of conservative opposition to "civil rights" laws.

It is for this reason that Fonte misses the mark when he calls the opponents of Gramscian leftism "Tocquevillians." These individuals – neoconservatives, Straussians, centrist Democrats, and National Review-Heritage Foundation style conservatives – are as often as not part of the problem. The description of "Tocquevillian" policies that Fonte himself furnishes proves the point. In Fonte's own words "the past few years have also witnessed what could be called u2018Tocquevillian' initiatives that attempt to bring faith-based institutions (particularly churches) into federal and state legislative efforts to combat welfare and poverty." Fonte's "Tocquevillianism," far from getting government out of the way, uses private institutions to serve the government's ends. In Gramscian fashion, it politicizes the personal.

There is no precedent for such an approach in Tocqueville's own writing. Democracy in America shows Americans fending for themselves without state assistance, even in the form of school vouchers or national educational standards intended to "empower" Americans to live more independently. Fonte incorrectly attributes to Tocqueville the neoconservative trinity of capitalism, religiosity (but never any particular religion) and Lincolnian patriotism. In so doing he neglects a central element of the American character that should be plain to anyone familiar with Tocqueville – anti-statism, the belief that government should do nothing that individuals and communities can do for themselves. Even if we accept the benevolent character of school vouchers or national education standards under a Republican administration, how long will it be before the next Democrat administration uses such precedents to further indoctrinate schoolchildren nationwide in Cultural Marxism?

Fonte concludes his article by saying that the Gramscians want to transform America, while the Tocquevillians want to transmit American values to the next generation. But in fact what his "Tocquevillians" too often do is transmit the transformations wrought by the Left. Fonte's article is a useful reminder of the real intellectual roots of leftism and the nature of its techniques, but he fails to recognize the extent of the problem and that the very "Tocquevillians" he sees as the last bastion against the Gramscians are often in practice Gramscians themselves.

January 9, 2000

Daniel McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.