In his op-ed today, Krugman mentions that much of the strategy for social security “reform” was laid out in a 1983 article in the Cato Journal. What struck me is the title of that article: “Achieving Social Security Reform: A ‘Leninist’ Strategy” (PDF link). It is hard to think today, with the Republicans so firmly in power, and conservative ideology so firmly entrenched in the national consciousness, that back in the 70s and 80s right-wing intellectuals were looking at leftist thinkers in order to learn how to win the culture war. Sure, Republican’s have always had a siege mentality. Even now that they are in power they still often talk as if they are fighting a vast liberal conspiracy. But the appeal of specifically Marxist intellectuals is still quite fascinating. The web site zfacts.com has highlighted some key quotes from the 1983 article:
“Lenin recognized that fundamental change is contingent upon … its success in isolating and weakening its opponents. … we would do well to drawa few lessons from the Leninist strategy. (p. 547)
“we must recognize that we need more than a manifesto … we must … construct … a coalition that will … reap benefits from the IRA-based private system Ferrara has proposed but also the banks, insurance companies, and … that will gain from providing such plans to the public.” (p. 548)
“The second main element … involves what one might crudely call guerrilla warfare against both the current Social Security system and the coalition that supports it. (p. 552)
But then, as Lenin well knew, to be a successful revolutionary, one must also be patient and consistently plan for real reform. (Concluding sentence, p. 556)
Nor is this just an isolated incident. In this 1996 article from the International Gramsci Society Newsletter, Charlie Bertsch wrote about the use of Gramsci’s theory of revolution in Rush Limbaugh’s book See, I Told You So:
Imagine my surprise when I opened the book to read that “in the early 1900s, an obscure Italian communist by the name of Antonio Gramsci theorized that it would take a ‘long march through the institutions’ before socialism and relativism would be victorious.” I read on to learn how “Gramsci theorized that by capturing these key institutions and using their power, cultural values would be changed, traditional morals would be broken down, and the stage would be set for the political and economic power of the West to fall” (p.87). I was taken aback and felt much the same way I had two years earlier upon learning that Nirvana’s Nevermind had topped the Billboard charts. “When did the Left get so big?” I wondered to myself.
When indeed? What is interesting about the use of these theorists by right-wing intellectuals (and yes, I consider Limbaugh an intellectual — in the Gramscian sense of the term), is that they are not mocking them, but are actually embracing their arguments. As Bertsch puts it:
Superficially, of course, he is merely following in a whole line of red-baiters who seek to impart to a mass audience the secrets they have unearthed about dangerous lefties. On this level, Rush’s reference to Gramsci is no different from J. Edgar Hoover’s elaboration of Marxist thought in Masters of Deceit: What the Communist Bosses are Doing to Bring America to its Knees (1958). What’s different about Rush, however, is that, unlike Hoover, he concedes the terms of debate to his enemy’s argument. Indeed, throughout large portions of See, I Told You So, particularly in chapters like “Are Values Obsolete? Or How to Win the Culture War,” “The Politically Correct Liberal Lexicon,” and “The Many Purposes of Culture,” Rush elaborates a notion of “Culture War” that he admits to having found in the theories of that “obscure Italian communist.”
Much of Krugman’s op-ed is about how the election of Howard Dean to the position of DNC chair is a sign that Democrats are reviving their fighting spirit. He goes to great pains to point out that Howard Dean is a centrist — but a centrist who is willing to fight for what he believes in. What worries me, however, is that fighting isn’t enough. Conservative intellectuals understood, having read Lenin and Gramsci, that the culture war is a protracted “war of maneuver” which requires building political alliances, gaining control of cultural institutions, and having the patience to loose a few battles if it can eventually lead to winning the war. It isn’t clear to me that the Democrats are ready for such a battle. They’ve only just begun to realize that there is a war on, and they’ve picked up a few of the enemy’s tactics, but the conservatives have the advantage of having a working theory of exactly what is involved in such a war.