What Cass Sunstein Gets Wrong About Marxism, Sanders, and American Politics
Heightening the Contradictions and Missing the Point
Writing for Bloomberg View on Thursday the 19th of October, the renowned legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues that alleged Russian meddling in the US election, President Donald Trump’s rabble-rousing, and Bernie Sanders’ political rhetoric are all examples of the “Marxist” strategy of stirring social unrest by “heightening the contradictions.” Sunstein’s contention is that any form of fomenting discontent, be it via fake news, scapegoating, or pointing out glaring socio-economic disparities entails the adoption and use of “Marxist strategies” that are ultimately “dangerous to the American people.” It is difficult to know where to begin with this ridiculous claim.
Sunstein mentions, in his lone footnote, that his account of Marx and Lenin’s views on “heightening the contradictions” is “a brisk summary of some famously complex and ambiguous arguments.” But the problem is not that his summary is overly brisk, but that it is fundamentally inaccurate and is used as the basis for a misguided and mistaken argument. Marx believed that the contradiction between the proletarian and capitalist classes was a real one that defined modern society and that that contradiction needed to be resolved. This is in no way analogous to sowing dissent between people who say “Merry Christmas” and those who say “Happy Holidays.” The latter is an example of smoke and mirrors tactics, aimed at distracting the public from their real problems. It is therefore the opposite of the Marxist position. Sunstein completely misses this, and in the process, misses a central feature of the American Right: in many ways, a paralyzed federal branch is the best possible thing for it, as it simultaneously keeps the state from intervening on the behalf of a working class bereft of the benefits of unionization and serves as an advertisement for the wisdom of small state neoliberalism.
His argument also serves to perpetuate the fourth estate’s “he said/they said” conception of “objectivity”: Lenin did it, Trump does, and Bernie Sanders does it. To equate Trump and Sanders in this way is hardly novel, but it is consistently mistaken. Just as both are not “populists” or demagogues — both are labels true only of Trump, as Jan-Werner Müller makes plain in What is Populism? — so only Sanders is trying to draw our attention to a genuine conflict that needs to be addressed, in the right way. Does anyone believe that this is true of Trump on, say, the political protests of football players? Or that he would not immediately move on to another outrage if those protests stopped?
More importantly, by using the specter of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to score cheap political points at the expense of honesty, Sunstein does serious disservice to public scholarship at a time when academic scholarship should be deployed accurately to address our seemingly endless social problems.
It warrants briefly dissecting Sunstein’s various assertions before returning to the question of Marx and Lenin. First, consider his claim that Russian meddling in the 2016 election stemmed from the fact that, as “the most powerful nation from the former Soviet Union, whose leaders were schooled in the Marxist tradition, [it] is borrowing directly from that tradition in its efforts today.” To call this conjecture is being generous. That some Russian higher-ups were educated in the Marxist tradition likely has much less bearing on any disruptive intervention into foreign affairs than pragmatic, Machiavellian realpolitik. “Lenin would have been proud,” muses Sunstein. Maybe. But to imagine that something like, say, Pizzagate was a Marxist strategy strikes us as perhaps even more absurd than Pizzagate itself.
Second, Sunstein correctly notes that Donald Trump, when faced with criticism, “tries to provoke unrest and discontent” and “creates demons and scapegoats.” He contrasts this to how previous presidents dealt with “periods of acute difficulty”: Kennedy and Reagan were charmers, Nixon and Clinton (apparently) were centrists, Bush Sr. and Obama took concrete actions. Given that Trump’s entire presidency has been a period of difficulty, it is not surprising that he has employed a diversity of diversionary tactics to deflect critique. These might sow division, but certainly not in the Marxist-Leninist sense. If anything, the notion of “heightening the contradictions” in the sense of putting the squeeze on common people and confronting them with the direness of their plight was better applied to the Obama-era GOP’s Congressional intransigence on budgetary spending, as Paul Feldman argued in The American Prospect back in 2014, than to Trump’s efforts.
Third, for good measure, Sunstein includes Bernie Sanders in his story, arguing that the Senator from Vermont is an old hand at this strategy, with his claims that “the interests of good, decent ordinary people are sharply opposed to those of powerful and supposedly evil actors (such as ‘the banks’).” Such critique, Sunstein believes, results in “a Manichean view of American society.” The problem here is that American society is already Manichean: 1% of the population controls almost 40% of the nation’s wealth. “The banks” have been complicit in scandals ranging from the subprime crisis to Wells Fargo setting up fraudulent accounts in its clients’ names. Socio-economic inequality and the outsized power of the business elite are a grave problem in the United States and the world. The success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century speaks volumes to the traction of this issue (Sunstein had qualms with Piketty as well.)
These three examples, lumped together haphazardly as they are, raise the question of how exactly they inter-relate and what they have to do with Marxism. The answer is: very little. That these are all forms of heightening contradictions is not only itself a dubious claim, but about as far from the Marxist meaning as can be (even neo-New-Dealer Sanders, despite the claims of some of his supporters and critics alike, isn’t trying to build a Lenin-esque revolutionary vanguard). Lenin’s argument wasn’t that social divisions were in and of themselves desirable, but rather that the working class should be made to see that they were getting a raw deal from the distribution of labor and capital under capitalism and be spurred to action. You don’t have to agree with this analysis, but that is the argument. It’s not about sowing discord for discord’s sake (For the record, the true analyst of the concept of contradiction as central to the theory of dialectical materialism was none other than Mao Zedong — a factoid Sunstein could have thrown in for extra shock value).
The thing is that Sunstein knows that his deployment of Marx and Lenin in his Bloomberg essay is tenuous at best, as he admits in his footnote. If that’s the case, then why reference this particular cast of characters at all? The only answer is that in deploying these boogeyman of the liberal sensibility he hopes to spook his readers into uncritically accepting his argument, which by itself holds no water. However, by tying Putin, Trump, and Sanders together with claims that they adhere to a Soviet strategy — a sort of discursive Red-baiting – he can conclude that any form of division or agitation is politically undesirable and even un-American. It’s a cheap rhetorical trick.
Our aim in making this critique is not to defend Marx or Lenin — or Putin or Trump — but to call for a more honest public scholarship. Good public intellectual work brings the nuance of scholarship, be it empirical or theoretical, to bear on public issues, and it does so honestly. Karl Marx may actually be a good source of insight on many of our current economic woes. Or he might not be. But his work, or the work of any other scholar, should be represented fairly. This would be public scholarship as teaching in the Weberian sense: giving readers a clear picture so that they might judge its merits and its applicability to the problem at hand.
Suggesting, as Sunstein does, that discontent with the political status quo can be blamed on Marxism and therefore dismissed as anti-American is to discard politics, political theory, and political inquiry altogether. And that poses a much greater intellectual threat than the ghost of a long-dead German political economist.
Jan Dutkiewicz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Politics at the New School for Social Research and is currently a Dissertation Fellow at the Center for the Humanities and Social Change at the University of California-Santa Barbara. His research focuses on the relationship between markets, violence, and ethics in the contemporary United States. He has published work in a number of academic journals, as well as in The Guardian and Jacobin.
Andrew Norris is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a member of the Steering Committee of the Center for the Humanities and Social Change. He is the author of Becoming Who We Are: Politics and Practical Philosophy in the Work of Stanley Cavell (Oxford University Press, 2017)
 Weber, Max. (2004 ) “Science as a Vocation.” In The Vocation Lectures. (Trans. R. Livingstone; ed. Owen and Strong). Hackett Books.