Mussolini and Neo-Fascist Tribalism
Multiculturalism, as we know it, would also not have been possible without the catastrophe that has befallen our colleges and universities in the post-'60s era. I am referring here to the politicization of the academy and the debasement of the curriculum, the transformation of the liberal arts divisions of the academy into a crude indoctrination platform and recruiting center for the America-hating, crypto-Marxist left. This intellectual plague has been described bluntly by Harold Bloom as "Stalinism without Stalin. All of the traits of the Stalinists in the 1930s, "are being repeated . . . in the universities in the 1990s." I am going to make an emendation to Bloom's description a little later. The mentality is Stalinist, but it is the particular Stalinism of Antonio Gramsci that informs the multicultural fervor in the academy. As I will further demonstrate, the post-modern left owes more, intellectually, to Mussolini than to Marx.
But we need to pause, first, over the fact that multiculturalism would not have been possible without the Ford Foundation and its tax-avoiding largesse. When you think about it, the American system of higher education in its own environment is remarkably diverse. There are more than three thousand institutions of higher learning in this country, occupying a diverse cultural geography. There are public and private colleges, technical institutes and schools of the arts, land-grant schools and schools with denominational affiliations, and many others besides. It is almost inconceivable that all these institutions would adopt a single party line, and would do so within the space of a decade or two, as they have on the multi-cultural front -- and on so many other fronts dear to the Left. How was this possible?
Well, it is possible if you have a pile of money larger than the discretionary spending of the federal government in these areas, and you are viewed as a benign force by the academic community itself. The power of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford Foundations, and their clones, to shape America's institutions of higher learning is by no means new. At the very beginning of the era of the modern university, for example, Andrew Carnegie decided that it would be a good idea to give college teachers pensions. A college president was pretty hard-pressed to refuse such a gift, if he wanted to retain the best faculty available. Accordingly, the Carnegie Foundation attached some conditions to its grants, and it is these conditions that served to define the entire educational era that followed.
The Carnegie Foundation began by announcing that only colleges, as defined by itself, would be eligible for the grants. The Foundation then defined a college as requiring so many hours of secondary school education (which are still known as Carnegie Units), as possessing an endowment of at least $500,000, as having at least eight departments, and with each department headed by a Ph.D. That was how the Ph.D. became the key to the academic kingdom. Never, of course, has there been a more conformity-creating credential. The Ph.D. means that university intellectuals are required to beg the approval of their betters for the decade that shapes their professional life. This credentialing system has been more effective than a Central Committee in creating ideological conformity in the ivory tower. The Carnegie Foundation also announced that it would not fund pension programs for denominational institutions. That was how Brown, Drake, Wesleyan and many other colleges gave up their denominational affiliations, and how the secularization of American higher learning began. As a congressional commission asked at the time: If a college will give up its religious affiliation for money, what will it not give up?
Since that time, the power of these elite foundations has only grown. A crucial flexing of their financial muscle, with ramifications for the present ideological directions of the university, came in the 1940s in response to the Second World War. At that time, America's spy agency, the OSS, developed a need for "area specialists" for its intelligence operations. It had no use for historians, political scientists, or economists as such. The department system that the Carnegie Foundation had created was not functional in creating intellectual specialists for military intelligence, which had more specific agendas than the "disinterested pursuit of knowledge" could service. It wanted specialists in the particular geographical areas and national units it had targeted for attention. For efficiency reasons it wanted these specialists to have an interdisciplinary approach to the targets in question, a demand that the university as then constituted could not fulfill.
The solution was to re-shape the university, and so the OSS turned to Rockefeller and later, when it became the CIA, to Ford. Grants were offered for the creation of "area studies" programs and area specialists. The Russian Institute at Columbia and the Asian Studies Center at Berkeley were prototypes of the new academic curriculum. Naturally there was powerful resistance from the conservative forces in the university, the departments, and the scholarly disciplines, which regarded this as an abusive intrusion into academic concerns and a debasement of their intellectual pursuits. But just as naturally the money provided by Rockefeller and then, during the Cold War, by Ford, overrode these objections and the new interdisciplinary area studies programs flourished in schools all over the country.
Like the spy chiefs of the Central Intelligence Agency, Marxists also favor the interdisciplinary approach. Marxism was never about "economics" but always about "political economy," a theoretical agenda embracing all aspects of society and culture in the service of mid-wifing a new human cosmos. That is because Marxism, and all species of post-modern radicalism, are totalitarian in their ontology, their epistemology, and their political agendas. Nothing escapes them. Like all gnostics, political radicals are confident that they possess the theoretical key that will unlock the mysteries of humanity and society. Of course, they don't believe in any immutabilities like human nature which, in the preposterous view now proposed in the university, is "socially constructed." Their agenda, like that of Lenin and Hitler, is to re-construct the world and to create the new men and new women who will inhabit it (and think just as they do). Such an enterprise requires an adolescent credulity, an amnesia towards the past, and an interdisciplinary approach.
That is why the radicals of the '60s, when their revolution in the streets came up empty, turned to a vulnerable, open, and essentially defenseless institution for a last act of desecration and conquest. That is why they began colonizing the university with spurious intellectual projects that looked a lot like the CIA area-studies programs. Soon there appeared black studies (now African American, of course), women's studies, queer studies, cultural studies, and even American studies, the closest clone of the CIA prototypes, targeted not on foreign adversaries, however, but on the indispensable, one might even say constitutive, enemy of the left-wing imagination -- the U.S.A. itself.
What made the routine violations of academic norms, and the subversion of institutional traditions possible was millions upon millions of dollars of bribes in the form of grants, subsidies, and other awards to administrators, academics, and institutions by the Ford Foundation and its satellite donors. It is no exaggeration to say that without the financial intervention of the Ford Foundation there would be no African American studies, women's studies, or queer studies as we know them.
What is multiculturalism? Well, in the first place, as my partner Peter Collier has pointed out, it is two lies in one word, since it is neither multi- nor cultural. It is, instead, fundamentally political and, like Stalinism, allows only one party and one party line. Its bottom-line agenda is the deconstruction of the idea of American nationality, in the service of the mindless, destructive, never-ending radical assault on the capital of the democratic world. Because it is the capital of the democratic world. Multiculturalism is the team banner of the hate-America Left.
From its inception as a nation of immigrants 200-odd years ago, America has been the inclusive mulit-national, multi-ethnic society, unparalleled in all human history in its success in integrating diverse communities on the basis of an ideal of equality. This success has been predicated on an American culture (not a multiculture) that makes that integration possible and sustains that American idea.
Multiculturalism is a head-on challenge above all to the notion that there is an American culture, and, that this culture is superior to all other cultures in precisely the ambition to be inclusive and equal, and that, consequently, this culture is the very crucible of America's future and its multi-ethnic success.
Multiculturalism is the place the Left went to lick its wounds when the '60s was over, and to carry on its malevolent agendas. The question radicals faced at the time was: How to continue the war against the evil empire -- America -- now that socialism was indisputably bankrupt. You do it the Gramscian way -- Antonio Gramsci being one of the many many disreputable Communists (and not a few disreputable Nazis) who have been enshrined as intellectual icons by the academic Left. Gramsci's addition to Marxist theory was to suggest that by seizing control of the culture you could extend that control to the rest of the social order as well. Never mind that the notion that the ruling ideas may not be the ideas of the ruling class destroys the entire edifice of Marxist theory. Logic was never a strong point of the Left. The real beauty of Gramsci's strategy is that it lets you forget about economics (which you never understood anyway) and about the colossal failure, the pure evil of actual socialist achievements, while continuing your adolescent hatred for America and its immense good works.
If you need an academic rubric under which to carry out this nihilistic attack, try "critical" -- as in critical legal studies, critical race theory, or critical theory as such. Marx and his friends in the Hegelian Left were, of course, the original "critical theorists," but the ones you want to especially model yourselves after are the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School -- deracinated Marxists who fled to the America they hated when the Hitler radicals came to power. Much earlier than you, Adorno and co. had lost faith in the proletariat and the liberated future as well. But they also did not want to give up their totalist assault on the bourgeois culture that gave them freedom to spew their abuse, and that had saved their lives as well.
Along with this spiteful hatred, another socialist frisson of the multicultural movement is the post-modern view that everyone (except white people), and every culture (except Western culture) is equal, and deserves equal respect. The culture arrogantly called Western Civilization is exclusionary and has to go. Your canon has the imperialists, the guilty, and the white, while ours has the innocent, the oppressed, and the persons of color. You have Homer and Shakespeare, and we have Rigoberta Menchu. Alongside the less appetizing aspects of the academic nightmare the Left has created, its capacity for self-parody is almost endearing.
In locating the roots of multiculturalism, we have to take into account a second catastrophe, in addition to the one that has befallen the academy. This is the catastrophe of the Left itself. Over the last several decades, even as the star of the Left has ascended in the academic firmament, it has become obvious to most ordinary mortals that the intellectual tradition of the Left -- the tradition that currently embraces Marx and Foucault, Heidegger and Derrida, Angela Davis and Andrea Dworkin -- of Frederic Jameson and Michael Lerner, is utterly, terminally, irredeemably bankrupt. Socialist economics, critical theory, and progressive loyalties have produced the worst atrocities, the most horrific suffering, the most crushing oppression, and the greatest misery in all human history. But not for a moment, in the nearly 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has the Left begun to face its failure, or confront its deeds, or figure out what happened to its impossible dreams. It has simply moved on to another trench in its permanent war against the West -- the English and Comp Lit departments of American universities. And in the course of this move, it has degenerated from a Stalinist universalism to a neo-fascist tribalism, which is what multiculturalism is really about.
There is a historical precedent for this post-modern devolution. At the time of the First World War, it had also become apparent to socialists like Lenin and Mussolini that something was awry in their totalist perspectives. A funny thing had happened on the way to the war. The proletarian international was supposed to heed Marx's reminder that the workers of the world had no country and to unite in opposition to the inter-imperialist conflict. Instead, the socialist parties of Germany and France decided they had more to lose than their chains and voted to support their national bourgeoisies and the war budgets that made the conflict possible. The socialist idea had collapsed.
In response to this debacle of Marxist theory, the Left of course did not decide to do the honorable thing and pack up its bags and go home. It wanted to continue its own war against the capitalist democracies of the West. Two paths lay before it. Lenin decided that conspiratorial vanguards were necessary to make sure that next time the working classes behaved as they were supposed to -- in conformity with socialist theory. Lenin created the Communist International to crack the whip of theory over the huddled proletarian masses. But the human components of this institution also stubbornly obeyed the dictates of reality rather than theory and, instead of acting as an international vanguard, quickly became an organization of frontier guards for the Soviet Union.
Mussolini chose the other course. He decided that the true revolutionary agency was not an international class without property, but the nation itself. Fascism, in fact, was a socialism of the People, spelled with a capital P, or, if you happened to live in Germany, with a V for Volk. This is the real intellectual heritage of today's post-modern, politically correct, and multicultural Left.
I quote the political scientist Stephen Holmes of the University of Chicago: "Every anti-liberal argument influential today, was vigorously advanced in the writings of European fascists [including the critique of] its atomistic individualism, its myth of the pre-social individual, its scanting of the organic, its indifference to community,..its belief in the primacy of rights, its flight from the political, its decision to give abstract procedures and rules priority over substantive values and commitments, and its hypocritical reliance on the sham of judicial neutrality."
Gene Vieth has put it more directly: "Cultural determinism, the reduction of all social relationships to issues of sheer power; the idea that one's identity is centered in one's ethnicity or race; the rejection of the concept of the individual . . . all of these ideas are direct echoes of the fascist theorists of the 1930s."
Or, to put it even more directly, "identity politics" -- the politics of radical feminism, queer revolution, and Afro-centrism -- which is the basis of academic multiculturalism, is a form of intellectual fascism and, insofar as it has any politics, of political fascism as well.
This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the Seventh National Conference of the National Association of Scholars in New Orleans, December 12-14, 1997.