We'll Take You with Us, Swim or Drown
Our story today opens in a prison cell in Italy where a sickly, diminutive, brilliant, thirty-six-year-old fellow named Antonio Gramsci is serving a twenty-year sentence on a trumped-up charge of involvement in an assassination attempt on Mussolini. As a dedicated Marxist, Gramsci is deeply distressed by the fact that the revolution of the proletariat Marx predicted had not yet materialized. He has concluded that the reason for this is the “prevailing culture,” which, he believes, has infected the working class with the belief that its happiness and prosperity were linked directly to the wellbeing of the bourgeoisie. He rightly concludes that Marx and Lenin had never considered the possibility that the workers of the world would become comfortable in a capitalist society. Instead, the two great Communist thinkers erroneously believed that the only thing that kept the masses from full-scale revolt was physical force and economic coercion.
Gramsci’s solution to the problem was to abandon the Marxist dream of a bloody revolution along with the effort to inform the proletariat about the wrongs they were suffering at the hands of capitalism. Instead, he urged his fellow revolutionaries to focus instead on undermining the bourgeois “cultural hegemony,” the dominant Judeo-Christian culture that had blinded the proletariat to its “unjust” burden. To achieve this end, he proposed taking control of the institutions of the culture, which included the schools and universities, the entertainment outlets, and the news media. Gramsci’s blueprint was adopted by Stalin and brought to the United States in the 1930s by a group of German Marxists who fled Europe in the wake of Hitler’s attack on the Jews. They are known to history as the Frankfurt School.
This strategy, which became known as “the long march through the institutions,” has been enormously successful in the United States, despite the fact that most of those who are involved in it today have never heard of Gramsci and have only a passing knowledge of Marx.
Our immediate interest in the Gramsci plan is centered on another of his assertions, that those involved in this effort should align themselves with any and all other political movements that are aimed at bringing down or sowing discord within the prevailing Judeo-Christian culture, no matter how far removed they are from Marxism. Needless to say, this is an exceptionally dangerous tack to take.
Now, as any schoolboy knows, the Democratic Party has purported to be the party of the oppressed proletariat since Franklin Roosevelt. Over the course of the last five decades, though, the party has slowly but surely abandoned the hard-working, no-nonsense crowd and aligned itself with more radical interests. More recently, it is clear that Donald Trump has driven many in the party absolutely batty and has, as a result, pushed them to embrace even more severe extremists. In a recent essay for National Review, the conservative commentator Ben Shaprio put it succinctly: “President Trump has a magic power. No, it isn’t the ability to engage in four-dimensional chess, or even to mystically connect with the ‘common man.’ It’s simply this: He can make Democrats defend anything.” In their zeal to disavow and embarrass Trump, the Democrats have made common cause with a variety of radicals who would gladly slit their throats – metaphorically AND literally.
All of this brings to mind the once-well-known observations from two notable men who were concerned about the consequences of enlisting the political help of radical elements within society. The first can be found in Samuel Coleridge’s Table Talk, in which the great poet offers his concern about the long-term impact of British Prime Minister Lord Grey’s efforts to garner the support of the lower classes for the British Reform Act of 1832.
[French Finance Minister Jacques] Necker, you remember, asked the people to come and help him against the aristocracy. The people came fast enough at his bidding; but, somehow or other, they would not go away again when they had done their work. I hope Lord Grey will not see himself or his friends in the woeful case of the conjuror, who, with infinite zeal and pains, called up the devils to do something for him. They came at the word, thronging about him, grinning, and howling, and dancing, and whisking their long tails in diabolic glee; but when they asked him what he wanted of them, the poor wretch, frightened out his of wits, could only stammer forth, -- "I pray you, my friends, be gone down again!" At which the devils, with one voice, replied, -- "Yes! yes! we'll go down! we'll go down! -- But we'll take you with us to swim or to drown!"
The second comes from the French historian Hippolyte Taine’s The Origins of Contemporary France: The Ancien Regime. The setting is a dinner party in pre-revolutionary France attended by the elite members of Paris’ upper class social set, including the great French philosopher Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet. They are speaking admiringly of Voltaire’s attack on the religion and waxing optimistic about the approaching revolution. Taine describes them thusly:
They have preserved their rank without fulfilling their duties; their position in the local as in the central government is a sinecure, and their privileges have become abuses. . . Through the habit, perfection and sway of polished intercourse they stamped on the French intellect a classic form, which . . . produced the . . . the ill-repute of tradition, the ambition of recasting all human institutions according to the sole dictates of reason, the appliance of mathematical methods to politics and morals, the catechism of the rights of man, and other dogmas of anarchical and despotic character . . . Once this chimera is born they welcome it as a drawing-room fancy; they use the little monster as a plaything, as yet innocent and decked with ribbons like a pastoral lambkin; they never dream of its becoming a raging, formidable brute; they nourish it, and caress it and then, opening their doors, they let it descend into the streets. . . .
They conclude that the Revolution will soon be consummated, that superstition and fanaticism must wholly give way to philosophy, and they thus calculate the probabilities of the epoch and those of the future society which will see the reign of reason. . . One of the guests had taken no part in this gay conversation; a person named Cazotte, an amiable and original man, but, unfortunately, infatuated with the delusions of the visionary. In the most serious tone he begins: “Gentlemen,” says he, “be content; you will witness this great revolution that you so much desire. You know that I am something of a prophet, and I repeat it, you will witness it. . . . Do you know the result of this revolution, for all of you, so long as you remain here?” “Ah!” exclaims Condorcet with his shrewd, simple air and smile, “let us see, a philosopher is not sorry to encounter a prophet.”
'You, Monsieur de Condorcet, will expire stretched on the floor of a dungeon; you will die of the poison you take to escape the executioner, of the poison which the felicity of that era will compel you always to carry about your person!' At first, great astonishment, and then came an outburst of laughter. “What has all this in common with philosophy and the reign of reason?”
“Precisely what I have just remarked to you; in the name of philosophy, of humanity, of freedom, under the reign of reason, you will thus reach your end; and, evidently, the reign of reason will arrive, for there will be temples of reason, and, in those days, in all France, the temples will be those alone of reason. . . . You, Monsieur de Champfort, you will sever your veins with twenty-two strokes of a razor and yet you will not die for months afterwards.. . .
“As to that, we women,” says the Duchesse de Gramont, “are extremely fortunate in being of no consequence in revolutions. It is understood that we are not to blame, and our sex.”
“Your sex, ladies, will not protect you this time. . . . You will be treated precisely as men, with no difference whatever. . . . You, Madame la Duchesse, will be led to the scaffold, you and many ladies besides yourself in a cart with your hands tied behind your back.”
“Ah, in that event, I hope to have at least a carriage covered with black.”
“No, Madame, greater ladies than yourself will go, like yourself in a cart and with their hands tied like yours.”
“Greater ladies! What! Princesses of the blood!”
“Still greater ladies than those. . .”
They began to think the jest carried too far. Madame de Gramont, to dispel the gloom, did not insist on a reply to her last exclamation, contenting herself by saying in the lightest tone, “And they will not even leave one a confessor!”
“No, Madame, neither you nor any other person will be allowed a confessor; the last of the condemned that will have one, as an act of grace, will be. . .' He stopped a moment.
“Tell me, now, who is the fortunate mortal enjoying this prerogative?”
“It is the last that will remain to him, and it will be the King of France.”