Just when you thought the old socialist left was dead and buried, it is sprouting up across the cultural landscape like a spring weed on Viagra.
Last week, Warren Beatty's terminally silly agitprop, "Bulworth," opened in theaters nationwide. The premise of the film is that a liberal politician has to first suffer a nervous breakdown in order to speak truth to power. To be fair, the film is quite funny -- a tribute to Beatty's comic talent as writer, actor and director. And its critique of political hypocrisy and cant is often telling. But the "truth" that it proposes as its main thesis is -- unintentionally -- funnier still.
According to "Bulworth," all liberal politicians are bought by "big rich guys" in order to keep them from publicly identifying the real solution to society's problems: Socialism! (This, of course, will earn particularly big guffaws in the newly liberated markets of eastern Europe.) Even more bizarrely, Bulworth-Beatty proposes Black Panther Huey Newton as oppressed America's lost leader. According to the pop Marxism of the film, the "deindustrialization of urban America" has deprived minority communities of champions like Huey, who in real life was a coke-head, murderer and rapist. Huey's message -- as Eldridge Cleaver told a "60 Minutes" audience shortly before the latter's death last month -- was a summons to race war that would have created a "holocaust" in America, if enough people had heeded it.
Of course, the movie's reform-minded posturing -- with Bulworth attacking the media for being bought by the same rich guys who buy him -- begs the larger real-life question: namely, how a right-wing corporate billionaire like Rupert Murdoch, owner of 20th Century Fox, could drop $30 million on a left-wing bomb-thrower like Beatty to promote such subversive claptrap.
Like a true Hollywood dilettante, Beatty, of course, has no actual experience on which to base his theories. When asked in TV interviews whether he has actually known any corrupt politicians, the aging matinee idol -- who has been close to most significant liberal Democratic legislators over the last 30 years -- responded he did not.
Bulworth belongs to the Oliver Stone school of political pontificating. But where Stone was slapped hard by liberal centrists who were among Stone's targets, Beatty has been given a relatively free ride. So it is not surprising that the Marxoid message of "Bulworth" has been trumpeted as a newly rediscovered gospel: "It may be the most keenly astute and honest film about politics ever," gushed a critic for a Los Angeles TV station. Others coyly endorse the movie's supposed wisdom. According to New York magazine's David Denby, Bulworth is a "thrillingly dangerous political comedy" and the senator is a "holy fool," i.e., an idiot who tells the truth.
"Bulworth" would be a less significant barometer of the zeitgeist if it were not accompanied by another effusion of reactionary sentiment on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Since we are also approaching the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one might have expected the Manifesto, along with its bloody inspirations, to be consigned to a shelf of poisonous tracts alongside "Mein Kampf" and the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Not so. Instead, two of the nation's preeminent journalistic institutions, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, celebrated the commemorative edition, issued by the New Left Review as a tribute to Marx's sociological "masterpiece." If Marx's Manifesto was shaky on a few details (the revolutionary fervor of the proletariat), it was still a prescient analysis for his time and ours, goes the thinking. The New York Times homage, written by (who else?) an English professor, suggested that the Manifesto could hardly be faulted as "a classic expression of the society it anatomized and whose doom it prematurely announced." Prematurely, indeed.
For its own tribute, the Los Angeles Times actually reprinted the worshipful 3,000-word introduction to the new edition by historian Eric Hobsbawm, for 50 years one of Communism's chief intellectual spear carriers. According to Hobsbawm, the Manifesto's brilliance lies in its "recognition" that the future for 1998 America, as for 1848 England, is a choice between "socialism or barbarism." Hobsbawm and Senator Bulworth clearly have a lot in common.
In a correspondence about the tribute to Marx, Los Angeles Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman, himself a former Berkeley radical,
explained to me that "much of what [Marx] wrote about capitalism remains as penetrating as the day he penned his polemics." To which I responded: "Like what for instance? The labor theory of value, the reserve army of the unemployed, the rejection of the market, the reduction of political and historical issues to issues of economic class, the prediction of increasing class polarization, the prediction of increasing misery, the prediction of a falling rate of profit, the prediction of capitalism's collapse?"
There was no answer. Marxism is mythology. The failure of "progressive" intellectuals like Wasserman and Beatty to understand this, coupled with their enormous power in American culture, is one of the main drags on social progress today. Such "progressives" cling to a welfare system that has destroyed families in America's inner cities. They have taken the core message of the Communist Manifesto -- which is an incitement to civil war -- and transformed it into a summons to gender and racial confrontation, a balkanizing of the nation, that makes any coming together to solve common problems impossible.
But the crowning irony of "Bulworth" is this: To the extent that the movie's reactionary message gets through, it will make the more pragmatic liberalism of Clinton Democrats that much harder to effect, and the election of conservative majorities that much more inevitable.