The Woke Mob Comes for a Marxist

A quick glance at right-wing media today would lead one to the conclusion that the Red Menace threatens Western democracies once again. The conservative celebrity Mark Levin in his new book, American Marxism, blames the republic’s ills on this foreign threat. Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation has denounced Black Lives Matter (BLM) as an offshoot of Marxism because it replaces Marx’s proletariat with black Americans as the agent of revolutionary change. Yoram Hazony, the philosophical defender of conservative nationalism, issued a dark warning in Quillette about the unprecedented threat that Marxism poses to America’s institutions:

There is blood in the water and the new Marxists will not rest content with their recent victories. In America, they will press their advantage and try to seize the Democratic Party. They will seek to reduce the Republican Party to a weak imitation of their own new ideology, or to ban it outright as a racist organization. And in other democratic countries, they will attempt to imitate their successes in America. No free nation will be spared this trial.

Perhaps not to be outdone, major representatives of the left in academe and the media have affirmed the relevance of Marxism. Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of BLM, has described herself and her fellow organizers as “trained Marxists.” The leaders of Antifa have similarly insisted that their battle against “fascism” continues the struggle of the Communists who duked it out with fascists and Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s. On a more cerebral level, the British Marxist Terry Eagleton argued in his 2011 book, Why Marx Was Right, that the theory of historical materialism was more relevant than ever, especially in the aftermath of the near-collapse of the capitalist order in 2008. Judging from these divergent accounts, it appears that Marxism, despite the confident prediction of President Ronald Reagan, is not “on the ash heap of history.”

Once in a while, however, the facts on the ground contradict the popular narrative that announces the rebirth of Marxism. The case of Canadian academic Frances Widdowson certainly challenges the assertion that Marxism is the ideological source behind today’s radical left movements. Widdowson, who openly defends Marx’s theory of historical materialism, confirmed in January of this year that she had been fired from a tenured professorship she had held at Calgary’s Mount Royal University since 2008.

Frances Widdowson
(Photo by Todd Korol)

In recent years, Widdowson had voiced political heresies that her university, including her colleagues, could not stomach. In 2020, following the death of George Floyd, she claimed that BLM had “destroyed” the university. In the same year, Widdowson challenged the conclusion of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that residential schools for aboriginal children were purveyors of “cultural genocide.” She argued, on the contrary, that these much maligned institutions provided indigenous children with an education that “normally they wouldn’t have received.” The consequence of these comments was a petition signed by 6,000 persons calling for her firing.

By way of explanation, her former employer issued the terse statement that academic freedom “does not justify harassment or discrimination … Mount Royal employees have the right to work in an environment that is respectful and free from harassment.”

Widdowson plans to take legal action against her university for the loss of her tenured position. “I was generally criticizing ‘woke’ ideas,” she said in an interview. She specifically targeted “identity politics that has [sic] become totalitarian, and is imposing itself on the university, and preventing people from openly discussing ideas.”

What is fascinating about this case is that although Widdowson was ultimately removed because she took positions that are well beyond the pale of left-wing discourse today, her criticisms of BLM, transgenderism, and other leftist causes also placed her well beyond the margins of acceptable “conservative” discourse in Canada, given the fact that most of the country’s Tories have either endorsed or tiptoed around these movements.

None of this means that Widdowson has become a right-winger. In a 2020 interview with C2C Journal, she explained that she has never left the left. “I am a historical materialist coming out of the Marxist tradition, or what would traditionally be considered a left-winger. But with the appearance of wokeism, I now get called a fascist all the time. It is rather troubling.” Widdowson distinguishes “wokeism” from the Marxist tradition as follows:

[W]okeism submerges the working class as just one identity among many. Race, indigeneity, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity are seen as being much more significant than class. I got a crash course in this hierarchy through transgender activism and its conflict with feminist philosophy. Because the trans identity is judged to have been more oppressed over time than the female identity, those who identify as female—or to be clear, who have XX chromosomes—now have to shut up.

It may be tempting to claim that Widdowson’s firing is just a case of the revolution eating its own. After all, didn’t Marxist radicalism open the door to an even more radical left that has simply replaced old identities (the working class, women) with new ones (visible minorities, LGBTQ)? Yet this explanation does not account for the fact that Widdowson’s writings converge more easily with traditional conservative positions than they do with the established right or left of today.

Her 2008 study (which she co-authored with her spouse Albert Howard), Disrobing the Aborig­inal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, adhered to a traditional progressivist methodology while condemning systemic bureaucratic corruption and mismanagement.

The book exposed the alliance between aboriginal governments on the reservations and federal government bureaucrats who manage the Department of Indian Affairs. This alliance cynically preserves aboriginal “traditions” serving the interests of corrupt native leaders while the common people languish in poverty on the reserves.

an aboriginal leader at the annual Canadian Aboriginal Meeting, in 2006. (Bahman A-Mahmoud / via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Despite the Marxian undertones of their analysis, Widdowson and Howard’s book won plaudits from the conservative political scientist Tom Flanagan, who is also a longtime critic of the “aboriginal industry.” Flanagan praised this study for doing “an excellent job of pointing out logical inconsistencies in the Aboriginal political movement—a matter of great practical as well as academic importance.”

Unlike her opponents on the post-Marxist left, Widdowson does not celebrate aboriginal traditions as a bulwark against oppression and colonization. Consistent with classical Marxism, she contends that these traditions, which prolong the ghettoization of aboriginal peoples on the reserves, do not prepare aboriginal Canadians for successful entry into the national economy. In her 2019 study, Separate but Unequal: How Parallelist Ideology Conceals Indigenous Dependency, she laments the fact so many aboriginal Canadians “live in urban ghettoes on the margins of Canadian life.” Although she does not dismiss the role of racist attitudes within Canadian society, Widdowson contends that “people influenced by traditional indigenous culture lack the discipline, attitudes, and skills needed to participate in a more complex economy and society.”

But lest anyone identify this position with a mere defence of the capitalist work ethic, Widdowson has repeatedly demonstrated her fidelity to classical Marxism by targeting how a capitalist hierarchy on the reservations benefits from this system. In a 2016 paper entitled “The Political Economy of Neotribal Rentierism,” Widdowson argues that the “proletarianization” of aboriginal peoples, not the dispossession of their lands, is at the heart of the myriad of social problems facing them. This proletarianization process stems from a system within which a privileged caste in the tribal hierarchy receives substantial monies from economic rents and federal transfer payments—funds that are rarely then shared with the impoverished members of the tribe.

Widdowson warns political economists on the left to beware of the romanticization of aboriginal tradition, which is “used to justify a revenue stream for privileged members of the neotribe.” Likewise, “parallelism,” an ideology that supports indigenous self-government as an entity in possession of powers that parallel other levels of government, simply enriches a tribal elite at the expense of aboriginal Canadians. That ideology also serves the interests of lawyers who benefit from endless legal wrangling over land claims.

Anyone who has actually studied Marxism would immediately recognize the origins of Widdowson’s warning that propaganda and ideology are instruments of a ruling elite. Yet the prevailing movements on the left today are reluctant to identify these problems, particularly when the modern capitalist state has already co-opted the movements through endless grants and awards.

But there may be another reason for the left’s inattention to today’s power structures. As the Canadian Tory philosopher George Grant predicted as far back as the 1960s, Marxism could never successfully challenge the hegemony of modern capitalism precisely because the capitalists will always be more progressive than their fearsome opponents on the left. Although Grant admired and often employed the insights of Marxism, he felt that it is ill-prepared to deal with the technological imperative imbedded within capitalism: to create new identities that tolerate no limits imposed by tradition or nature. As he wrote in Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965):

The doctrine of progress is not, as Marx believed, the perfectibility of man, but an open-ended progression in which men will be endlessly free to make the world as they want it. In Marxism, technology remains an instrument that serves human good. But many technologists speak as if mastery were an end in itself… The conquest of human and non-human nature becomes the only public value.

Grant further believed that the liberal idea of progress “is the perfect ideology for capitalism” because it “demolishes those taboos that restrain expansion.” At best, socialism is an archaic version of progress that seeks “to restrain greed in the name of social good.” It is a safe bet that the consumers of newly created identities—whether racial, sexual, or tribal—have zero sympathy with an ideology that calls for this sort of restraint. Grant would not be surprised in the least that big business has generously funded leftist movements who, whether consciously or not, crave new identities that can be bought and exchanged like any commodity.

Two lessons can be drawn from the Widdowson controversy. First, tenure is about as likely to protect a true Marxist from the woke mob as it is to protect a Thomist who teaches the natural law theory of gender differences. Second, Marxism, despite all the bombast surrounding its alleged revival, poses no threat to either the political status quo or capitalism. As long as dominant elements on the left and the right make their peace with identity politics, any criticism of this hegemony will result in harsh penalties for the usual suspects.

Top image: bust of Karl Marx on his grave at London’s Highgate Cemetery (Ben Sutherland / via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

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