In what has since become known as his first “major” speech, Abraham Lincoln famously warned the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in 1838 about the dangers of “mob rule.” As reprehensible as are the immediate consequences of mob rule, however, Lincoln’s larger strategy in the speech is to use our revulsion at the actions of the mob to draw our attention to the long-term dangers of what he calls “the mobocratic spirit.”
These dangers move in two directions. In the first place, “the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained.” Mob rule, in other words, encourages evil men to run wild. Conversely, ordinary law-abiding people, recognizing that the government can or will do nothing to protect them, “become tired of, and disgusted with” that government.
According to Lincoln, this is the ideal situation for the destruction of free self-government. When the mobocratic spirit rules, “the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the people.” Neither the law-abiding nor the lawless have any respect for the government, and therefore neither has any particular stake in preserving it. It is here that revolution is possible; it is here that tyranny can take root.
In our own time, at this very moment, we are experiencing the truth of Lincoln’s old words. Triggered by the death of George Floyd in custody of Minneapolis police, a wave of violence and destruction has broken out in virtually every major American city. As outrageous as the rioting is on its own terms, the broader consequences should be terrifying. As the lawless embark on a wave of destruction, the law-abiding are terrified and appalled, both by the violence and by the pitiful response of local and state authorities. Democratic mayors and governors seem to have little interest in protecting the safety and property of the law-abiding, and in some cases seem to be actively encouraging and abetting the lawless.
In Lincoln’s rhetorical universe, the mob is simply that: a mob. They are agitated by some particular issue, they lash out in violence, destruction, or vigilantism, but then their force is spent and they dissipate. What the mobs in Lincoln’s view do indirectly and unintentionally, contemporary mobs do directly and intentionally: attack the foundations of civil society. The George Floyd riots are part and parcel of that effort, but they are merely the thin end of the wedge, a pretext. The instigators of mob violence are motivated by a revolutionary ideology, which is shared by many more than just the rioters. It is an ideology and a project which despises the American way of life and which, if successful, will bring about the end of free self-government in America. The American Left is trying to revolutionize the United States along the lines of Marxist ideology, and they are presently seeking to force the issue.
At the outset of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels state that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” At the time, Marx and Engels thought the struggle was between industrial workers (proletarians) and those who own the means of production in a capitalist society, the bourgeoisie. The very existence of the proletarians was at the mercy of the bourgeoisie, and to survive, “these labourers, who must sell themselves piece-meal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce.”
The final stage in this struggle was to begin with a proletarian revolution. Eventually the proletarians—impoverished, abused, and disenfranchised—would rise up against the bourgeoisie and the social and economic system they perpetuate. In Marx and Engels’s words, “the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”
In the Western democracies, however, a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. The industrial worker acquired a share of the wealth of industrial capitalism large enough to give him a level of comfort and security, which is wholly alien to the oppressed proletarian. Industrialization took the proletariat and turned it into the “middle class.”
This “middle class” worker is a person who does not exist in Marxist theory. He is not bourgeois in any sense. He is not an industrialist, nor is he part of the lesser bourgeoisie: he is neither a small businessman, nor an intellectual, nor a government official. As Greg Calvert of the Students for a Democratic Society noted in 1967, “What we have come to understand is that the great American middle class is not middle class at all…. The vast majority of those whom we called the middle class must properly be understood as members of the new working class.” The American middle-class worker remains a proletarian, but he cannot see that fact.
The archetype of such a worker is my own grandfather. Born to Polish immigrants, raised in desperate poverty in West Virginia coal country, he took whatever job he could find as a teenager in the Great Depression. After service in World War II he worked in a toy factory, and then moved his family to Akron, Ohio to work in the rubber industry. This allowed him to afford a modest home in the suburbs, a couple of cars, and decent food and clothing for his family of five. My grandfather, like most men in his situation, had no interest in Marxist revolution; why would he? The existing order had given him a standard of living which was unheard of in all human history except among the elite.
Consequently, the Marxist historical process has been interrupted in the Western democracies. This fact was the despair of western Marxist intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse, a revisionist Marxist of the Frankfurt School and an icon of the American Left in the 1960s. Marcuse struggled to understand the new reality in works like One-Dimensional Man and “Remarks on a Redefinition of Culture.” The basic problem, he noted in the latter work, is that “social change presupposes the vital need for it, the experience of vital social conditions and of their alternatives.”
Marcuse realized the Western worker’s comfort and security obscure for him his position as a proletarian worker. In One-Dimensional Man he concluded that “The new technological work-world thus enforces a weakening of the negative position of the working class: the latter no longer appears to be the living contradiction of the established society.”
Marcuse concluded that the prosperity of the Western worker was merely a means of making comfortable his enslavement within the capitalist system: “society takes care of the need for liberation by satisfying the needs which make servitude palatable and perhaps even unnoticeable.” Western capitalism has renamed the proletarian the “middle class,” rendered him oblivious to his servitude, and thus preserved bourgeois rule.
Cultural Hegemony and Revolution
In response to this problem, Marxists embraced in the idea that Western culture was as much of an enemy of revolution as was bourgeois capitalism. The connection between economic power on the one hand, and social and cultural hegemony on the other, was already present in Marx’s own work. In The German Ideology (1846) he observes that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”
The Manifesto of the Communist Party was even more direct on this point: “Law, morality, religion, are to him [the proletarian worker] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.” The entire social and cultural system is a bourgeois attempt to preserve and justify its own dominance.
Ahistory that should never have been forgotten has long since been lost. It is time to refresh our memories. Black Lives Matter (BLM) does not represent the old Civil Rights Movement. It does not seek equality under the law. And it does not intend to stop until it overthrows the very idea and structure of America as we’ve known it. Under increasing pressure to acknowledge the dawning reality to which Americans are increasingly waking up, Joe Biden has finally said that looting and arson are, in fact, bad. But Pandora’s box has already been opened. The Democrats’ Vice-Presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, put us on notice in June: “everyone beware—because they’re not gonna stop…everyone should take note of that…they’re not gonna let up, and they should not—and we should not.”
So… the wealth, opportunity and comfort provided by capitalism and western culture is just a trick to make the middle class believe they have wealth, opportunity and comfort? DAMN THEM!