History and Historiography

When Will They Cancel Karl Marx?

By Andrew Sullivan

Never, of course. On the revealing double standards of the woke left.

Discrediting a thinker’s broad worldview or legacy by discovering some statement from the distant past revealing him or her to be a bigot by today’s standards is a depressing degeneration in our intellectual life. It speaks of a compulsion to moralize rather than to understand, to shut down rather than expand debate.

Picasso was morally monstrous; but his painting is transcendent. And if you cannot disentangle the two, you are attacking a key liberal principle: that ideas and works of art should be considered on their merits, and not on the virtue or vice of their proponents.

But what makes this illiberalism even more repellent is how selective it is. For a few generations now, critical race theorists have attempted to cancel one Enlightenment thinker after another, excoriating Thomas Jefferson as a bigot and hypocrite, David Hume as a vicious racist, Immanuel Kant of all people for white supremacism. The Age of Reason has been recast as the Era of Hate.

In his new book, The War on the West, Douglas Murray quotes Black Studies professor Kehinde Andrews explaining the rationale for this: “A defense of liberalism is the worst possible thing you want to do. Because liberalism is the problem. It is the Enlightenment values which really cement racial prejudice.” The notion here is that human beings had no tribal, racial prejudices until the Age of Reason dawned. Racial hatred was invented by and is the exclusive property of white people in the last few hundred years. Seriously, that’s what the woke believe.

The attacks on Hume, Jefferson and Kant, moreover, refer to single sentences or asides that represent some of the lazy bigotries of the past. (The entire works of Aristotle and Plato are also on the chopping block because of their retrograde views on slavery, among other things.) And so one wonders if the same standard would apply to every philosopher in the past — way beyond the Enlightenment.

Well, one doesn’t wonder very much … because the bad faith of so much critical theory is a feature and not a bug. The goal is not to see the truth, but to gain power in order to impose their truth. And to accuse you of hate if you dare to demur.

Few examples demonstrate this better than Karl Marx, one of the most repellent anti-Semites and racists of the 19th century. Murray’s treatment is devastating. Let’s cite some of the greatest hits:

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