The Marxist Devil and Free Speech on Campus

Jason Brennan, a philosopher at Georgetown, authored a long post the other day that presented multiple challenges to anti-speech activism on campus. The entire piece is worth reading, but I wanted to call attention to one point in particular:

“Some people say we can’t ‘platform’ ideas that could be used for evil. I look forward to seeing those same people demand we shut down all Marxist talks and fire all the Marxist scholars, since Marxist ideas led to 100 million or more democides in the 20th century.”

The underlying argument — that certain ideas are too “dangerous” to be tolerated on campus, thereby making them “exempt” from the principles of free speech and academic freedom alike — is an increasingly common one among campus radicals. Following recent events at Berkeley, the editor of a student paper ran an entire series political editorials in this vein espousing the use of violence to shut down controversial speakers and ideas. The logic of this claim is symptomatic of a frenzied paranoia afflicting the illiberal campus Left. It is also deeply ingrained in the pseudoscholarly fever swamp of Critical Theory, exemplified in Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay espousing a philosophically incoherent “liberating tolerance” that intentionally excludes beliefs on the political Right by deeming them “repressive” and oppositional to various pet causes of revolutionary radicals. Marcuse justified his position by citing the horrors of Nazism and Fascism, thereby attempting to position intolerance as a necessary defensive bulwark against atrocity. The intended consequence was a free license to like-minded radicals to silence their opponents in the name of inhibiting any belief they deem dangerous:

“They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior–thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives.”

The targets of Marcuse’s world have since multiplied to practically anything and everything that a self-appointed campus epistocracy of Critical Theorists deems even mildly offensive, hence the recent proliferation of “microaggression” reporting policies and the like from the basements of the English department and the cubicles of student affairs bureaucracies. Yet for all its pretenses of being a necessary defense against “dangerous” ideas, this line of argument suffers from a glaring vulnerability that Brennan identifies above: Karl Marx.

Critical Theorists will no doubt carve themselves an exemption for atrocities committed in the “service of the revolution” or some similar nonsense, but the horrendous body count of Marxist communism is indisputable. The most commonly accepted estimate places the 20th century total at 100 million victims, with the repressive communist societies of the Soviet Union and Maoist China constituting the two deadliest regimes in all of human history. Lesser communist societies leave similarly devastating death tolls practically every place they are attempted, the only difference between them and Stalin being a matter of scale.

With a few noted exceptions who retreat into the Soviet equivalent of Holocaust denial, most modern Marxists try to dissociate themselves from these numbers by insisting the perpetrators were not sufficiently authentic adherents of Marxism. This excuse is intellectually flimsy, and tends to overlook the fact that every one of these regimes (1) considered itself Marxist, (2) believed itself to be implementing Marxist ideas, and (3) enjoyed alarming degrees of support and enthusiasm in its own time by contemporary Marxist intellectuals, particularly before their death tolls were widely known. All said, the empirical evidence of Marxism’s connections to unprecedented levels of death and devastation is impossible to escape.

All of this leads to an inescapable conclusion: If one admits the principle that academia is obliged to deny a platform to specific ideas on account of their demonstrated propensity to do harmful and horrendous things, then one must necessarily exclude Marxists from that platform on account of Marxism’s track record of murder and devastation, which is empirically unparalleled in all of human history.

A Soviet forced labor camp

To be completely clear, I make this observation as a free speech absolutist. I shudder at the thought of excluding even the most wrongheaded idea from free and open discussion — Marxism included — precisely because I value open inquiry as a principle onto itself and because I fear any power that could be turned around and abusively deployed against non-Marxist beliefs, my own included. We give the devil the benefit of law for our own safety’s sake. If one removes these absolute protections for free and open discussion and deems dangerous ideas unworthy of a platform, then the very same Marcusian activists that advanced this argument in the first place are made vulnerable to the track record of their own Marx-derived philosophical roots. Surely they are less-than-ready to grapple with the implication that vulnerability carries for their own standing on campus.

Measuring Marx on Campus:

So how prevalent is Marxism in academia these days, and can we measure what the illiberal campus activists must logically be willing to forego if their argument on denying dangerous speech is admitted? There are many empirical dimensions to this question, almost all of which point to a sizable presence compared to society at large.

First, as I’ve pointed out previously, Karl Marx enjoys an elevated and disproportionately common presence on American university syllabi. By this metric, Marx’s Communist Manifesto is the single most frequently assigned text in the college classroom other than the Strunk and White grammar manual. While some of this standing obviously reflects the historical significance of communism in the past two centuries, its prominence also far exceeds other similar historically significant works of political philosophy. Only Plato’s Republic approaches these numbers among other major figures in the philosophical canon. Locke’s treatises, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Machiavelli’s the Prince, and Mill’s On Liberty don’t even come close. Marx’s use on syllabi also noticeably concentrates in certain disciplines in the humanities, though far less so in economics or the more empirical end of the social sciences.

Second, a handful of studies have actually sought to measure the number of faculty who self-identify as Marxists. The most recent comprehensive study is a survey conducted in 2006 by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. The authors conducted a national poll of university faculty to ask them about their political self-identifications, including options to identify as “radical” and “marxist.”

The authors of this study downplayed the total number of Marxists they found, calling them “rare” and noting that they made up only 3% of all faculty. This figure includes respondents from the STEM fields, business schools, and medical professions though — all of which showed next to zero Marxist faculty members. Their breakdown appears below.


A more complicated picture emerges though when we look at these survey results within other areas of the academy. As Bryan Caplan has pointed out, the Marxists (as well as radicals) actually concentrate in a few specific areas — and they do so with sizable numbers. The largest concentration of self-identified Marxist professors is in the social sciences at 17.5% (on top of that, 24% of social scientists identify as radical).

The same survey also published discipline-specific data on some of the larger disciplines within the social sciences. These results suggest that Marxist faculty also cluster at comparatively higher rates in specific disciplines. In the largest example they reported, 25.5% of Sociology faculty self-identified as Marxists.

How many actual professors does this encompass? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 16,160 sociology professors in the United States today. Assuming the percentages have remained constant since the survey, there are approximately 4,120 self-declared Marxists sociology professors in the United States today.

(Note that holding the Marxist percentages constant is a conservative assumption. More recent faculty surveys conducted on a simpler left-right scale have shown a strong leftward shift in faculty ideology since 2006)

The BLS also estimates that approximately 136,000 professors are employed in the social sciences as a whole. At 17.5% held constant, there are about 23,800 self-described Marxist social science professors in the United States.

At these numbers (again assuming the 2006 survey breakdown is constant), sociologists would also make up about 17% of the Marxist professors who teach in the social sciences (for perspective, sociology accounts for about 11.8% of social science faculty as a whole).

These are admittedly rough calculations based on an survey that likely warrants updating in light of the more recent leftward shifting trend in faculty ideology. They also omit other left-leaning identifications such as “radical” that likely include faculty who share some favorable views of Marxism, such as the Critical Theorists who dominate many fields in the humanities. Both groups are common in the humanities and social sciences, though unfortunately the 2006 survey authors did not release enough information to parse out these overlaps. We may nonetheless add the 5% of humanities faculty who fall into the Marxist category by their own designation. Doing so, we get a combined total of about 31,600 self-identified Marxists between the humanities and social sciences.

I would argue that the concentration of Marxists in some academic disciplines are disproportionately high relative to the limited intellectual insights they provide — particularly given the disastrous track record of Marxist insights into social scientific matters, as seen in action across the past century or more. But I’d also contend that these faculty deserve the unwavering protections of the academic freedom to advance their scholarly research and of free speech to advance their arguments in an open societal discussion, even as I’d likely disagree with most of their specific insights.

The illiberal campus activists we’ve seen and heard so much from in recent years make no similar commitment to either of these protections, and in fact openly call for their removal in cases where they deem an alternative viewpoint “dangerous” or “evil.” In light of Marxism’s political track record, and given the high concentrations of Marxists in some of the same academic disciplines that cater to and advance these same illiberal anti-speech arguments, all I can say is this: be careful what you wish for.

Phil Magness

Phil Magness is a historian, professor of public policy at George Mason University, and a Senior Scholar at the Freedom Trust. You can read more of his writing at

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Phil Magness

Phil Magness is a historian, professor of public policy at George Mason University, and a Senior Scholar at the Freedom Trust. You can read more of his writing at

14 thoughts on “The Marxist Devil and Free Speech on Campus

  1. Dealing with contradictions has never been the strong suit of today’s campus radicals.

    You don’t even need to jump up a level to marxism to show how these people are shooting themselves in the foot. There is ample evidence of violence on campuses being committed in the name of anti-free speech activism and de-platforming speakers who’s views are considered dangerous. So by their own standard, the idea that some speech should be banned from campus should also be banned.

  2. Hans: Tbf, I don’t see anyone challenging the op’s central point. While it would be nice to see someone go “Hey, I agree with you on free speech” before getting into the specifics, I won’t push it on internet commenters who are being polite and reasonable. :p

  3. Gee, a lot of folk sliding right past the point of the article.
    Let’s see.
    a) If it is right to ban some ideas and points of view on campus because they are, or might be, harmful and lead to oppression;
    b) and since Marxist ideas have definitely been used (or even ab-used, if you wish) by those who carried out some of the worst killings and oppression in history;
    c) expression of Marxist ideas should be banned on campus.

    Sounds pretty airtight 🙂

  4. His “reserve army of labour” was a genuine and innovative contribution to economics. And one that is directly pertinent to the current economic situation in the U.K. And the USA.

    That’s about it, though.

  5. It’s interesting that the second most cited text after Communist Manifesto is The Republic of Plato. As Karl Popper argued in The Open Society and its Enemies, that text is as detailed a recipe for totalitarian rule as has ever been penned, far moreso than the vague hints thrown out by Marx or Engels. There is a question as to whether texts lead to political practices, or whether such texts are used to justify practices already adopted: late c19 British civil servants and other members of the intellectual elite had been saturated in Plato at Oxford, but the exposure did not lead them to totalitarian methods or attitudes. It remains true, however, that Stalin was probably the sort of philosopher king you would actually get in practice, after a blood-drenched series of coups – a far cry from the dreams of both Plato and Marx – though the latter’s own political practice was vicious and authoritarian enough (as recent studies by Jonathan Sperber and Gareth Stedman Jones amply demonstrate). The odd thing about today’s Marxists is that they have completely abandoned the most central of Marx’s doctrines – the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the theory of class struggle.

  6. 1. Marcuse is cited here because his argument is directly relevant to the issues of free speech and tolerance. It would be inappropriate to cite a different Critical Theorist who did not make arguments that are pertinent to the question of free speech and tolerance that is being addressed here. I also note that you do not dispute the problematic implications of Marcuse’s argument.

    2. Stalinism’s link to Marx is one of direct lineal descent. Since the argument being addressed here holds that ideas that lead to certain types of violence should not be tolerated on account of that propensity, Stalin is sufficient to meet that burden for the purpose of disqualifying Marx. Whether you fantasize about other non-Stalinist variants of Marxism that you believe to be peaceful is immaterial to that argument, as it has already been shown that Marxism did indeed lead to violence.

    3. These particulars were each addressed in the original article, which suggests to me that you did not bother reading it.

  7. You seem to lack a clear picture of what the Critical Theory and Marxism is.

    I would suggest reading some other Critical Theory than Marcuse (who sadly seems to be the only one North Americans think about when they talk about Critical Theory).

    And I would suggest you to actually read “Das Kapital” or at least make some sort of research attempt before before you try to equate Marx with the totalitarian Stalinist/Maoist societies of the 21st century.

    The communist society that Marx proposed was a society of free individuals in free exchange.

    Thus even the want-to-be anticommunist United States of America are far more Marxist, in the true sense of the word, than any of those dictatorships with a red flag banner could have ever been.

    They used (and still use) that imagery to legitimize their ruthless rule, warping the teachings of Marx beyond recognition, ultimately twisting them so substantially that nothing of Marx remains, other than his name and his face.

    But the truly sad part is that people, whether they live in the PRC or North America, still fall for the trick.

  8. Maybe you were born rich but for the rest of us we have to earn a living, and publishing and promoting books is more legitimate than living off daddy’s handouts.

  9. The point of the op is to judge Marxism by the standards of other ideas deemed too ‘harmful’ to grant a platform to.

    Unlike other forms of speech being shut down on hypothetical harm Marxism has demonstrably murderous effects.

    Marxism tells us feck all about capitalism we didn’t already know, a hell of a lot which is bullshit.

    The analogy with Aristotle and the Enlightenment is nonsense. The triumphs of philosophy and science are all around you; the ‘achievements’ of Marx were poverty and horror so profound the survivors would rather be ruled by gangsters.

  10. Marxism has been harmless for everyone except villagers, landowners, homosexuals, cossacks, native Americans, political prisoners, union members, or the religious. And of these, only 85 million or so were killed (reference ). I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

  11. Has the concept of “free” speech become so sacred that anyone with an opinion should have access to a college campus? Is there never a point when someone has something so vile, misguided, or just plan dumb to say that they can be reasonably denied access to the podium? While there is no argument against diversity of opinion, most of the speakers targeted are self-serving flamethrowers looking to sell books, secure face time on cable news, or pimp their AM radio talk show. There are literally thousands of campus lectures a year featuring speakers of all religious and political persuasions and not a peep. So telling Ann Coulter to hit the bricks equals Marxism? Actually Annie should be sending Cal a check for the free publicity, the recent incident put more money in her pocket then any speech would have ever returned. Funny she didn’t decide to book a hall down the street at her own expense because what she had to say was so critical to our democracy. Most of these folks that are being targeted, hello Milos, are NOT looking for healthy debate, they want to be as loud and outrageous as possible in order to get more Twitter followers. So pardon me for not fearing that the Nazi’s are taking over our college campuses.

  12. But Marx’s insights aren’t limited to economics. They relate to how capitalism affects lots of aspects of society. I’ll refer back to Marcuse, Fromm, and Habermas.

    There is a role for Marxist scholars and theories in the humanities and social sciences. I never meant to suggest that Marxist scholarship in any way compensated for communist atrocities. But these atrocities don’t invalidate the scholarship either, any more than the atrocities of Alexander the Great invalidate the scholarship of Aristotle, or the atrocities of the West invalidate the scholarship of the Enlightenment.

  13. Marc might have styled himself a ‘philosopher’ but what philosophy of value he produced was repackaged Hagel.

    What he actually was, was an economist.. If he produced any economic theory of value he’d be taught on economics courses..

    I quite admire Frederic Jameson’s Vulcan ability to reduce the most complex, humanist novel to a parallelogram bisected with arrows – I’m on the spectrum myself – but it’s really no compensation for the intentional mass murders committed in Marx’s name or the ‘accidental’ deaths by starvation when bourgeois crops resisted indoctrination and failed to grow like good little comerades.

  14. Marx is and should be taught because he was a brilliant critic of philosophy and a seminal figure in the field we might call “political economy.” Marxist concepts like class struggle, exploitation, surplus value, historical materialism, and commodity fetishism are useful for studying economics, history, and culture. His ideas can be and have been applied to study phenomena in a variety of fields, from anthropology to historiography.

    When talking about Marxism, one has to be ready to acknowledge the diversity of thought and schools within it. Stalinist and Maoist ideas are, I believe, foolish and lead to disaster when implemented. However, much of the Frankfurt School’s output is valuable: Marcuse’s ideas about repressive desublimation and one-dimensional man, Fromm’s “to have” vs. “to be” and “the pathology of normalcy,” Habermas and legitimation crisis — these insights come from Marxist-trained thinkers, thinkers who you might say were especially inspired by the early (humanist) Marx’s ideas about true (not formal) freedom. One could also throw in Fredric Jameson and his comprehensive assessment of postmodernism, and G.A. Cohen’s expansion of the theory of luck egalitarianism.

    I could go on, but the essential point is that we have to recognize that there is value in studying Marx, and that it’s intellectually lazy and ignorant to equate 20th century communism with Marxism broadly conceived.

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