Wokeism arises out of the failure of liberalism, not out of the theory of Marxism.
Yoram Hazony provides what is perhaps the best exposition of how the woke left represents an “updated” form of traditional Marxism. His argument, which is ably presented in his book Conservatism: A Rediscovery, is summed up as follows:
Marx’s principal insight is that the categories liberals use to construct their theory of political reality (liberty, equality, rights, and consent) are insufficient for understanding the political domain. They are insufficient because the liberal picture of the political world leaves out two phenomena that are, according to Marx, absolutely central to human political experience: the fact that people invariably form cohesive classes or groups and the fact that these classes or groups invariably oppress or exploit one another, with the state itself functioning as an instrument of the oppressor class.
Part of this argument is undoubtedly correct. The form of liberalism that came out of the 18th-century Enlightenment did indeed stress individual rights and liberties, and it placed less emphasis on national and class identities than on individual advancement. This liberal tendency continued to manifest itself into the late 20th century, although liberalism itself underwent significant changes with the modern welfare state and the introduction of universal suffrage. Moreover, while self-identified liberals supported nationalist movements and movements of national liberation throughout the 19th century, to whatever extent they reflected Enlightenment liberalism, they stressed individual rights and individual self-fulfillment.
Hazony is correct that the woke left has outflanked self-described liberals in the media and the academy by defending collective identities. These privileged identities are ascribed to exploited members of designated victim groups. The contemporary left has therefore developed its own collectivism by incorporating a vocabulary and conceptual framework borrowed from the Marxist tradition. Like Marxism, the woke left divides humanity into oppressors and the oppressed, and it views the state as an instrument of power that should be made to fit the needs of the supposedly downtrodden. The woke left has abandoned the socioeconomic perspective of older Marxist theory but, according to Hazony, continues to imagine reality along similar lines: that is, as a confrontation between cohesive classes, consisting of the oppressors and oppressed. Thus the woke left conjures up a situation that calls for a revolutionary solution.
Hazony relates his treatment of this left as an updated form of historic Marxism to the waning of anti-Marxist liberalism. In his judgment, liberals who fight Marxism in the name of individual rights are holding a poor hand. They are upholding individual natural rights against collective identity, a concept that now dominates in Western societies. The battle lines are no longer between the liberal defense of the individual and various form of collectivism. Rather the lines are drawn between conservative nationalism, that is, “conservative democracy,” and Marxism in its regnant woke form.
Hazony’s argument about the connection between Marxism and the woke left is carefully developed and does not seem aimed at promoting the talking points of self-interested conservative establishmentarians. Hazony is not pointing to a Marxist bogey to avoid battle with what has become a much more formidable adversary than “creeping socialism.” And he is certainly not trying to divert our attention from the necessary struggle against the woke left. He is offering what seems to me the most effective argument for assigning a Marxist derivation to woke ideology.
Unfortunately, Hazony cannot escape the materialist foundation of Marxist historical theory. Marx was not in the least concerned with nonbinary oppression, raging homophobia, or the inherently evil nature of being white. This father of “scientific socialism” focused on socioeconomic antagonisms expressing themselves as class conflict. His historical materialism, however, was overhauled in interwar Germany, as the Frankfurt School and its Critical Theory came onto the scene. This new iteration of the left developed what has been called “cultural Marxism,” and it defined as a pressing socialist task the reconstruction of the bourgeois Christian family. This reconstruction was supposedly necessary to stand firm against the rampant spread of fascism. Among Frankfurt School theorists, attempts were also made to assimilate Marxism to a variant of Freudian psychology; and in Herbert Marcuse’s work, Marxist socialism was fused with the vision of polymorphic sexuality.
It was also the Frankfurt School theorist Marcuse who paved the way for the New Left neo-Marxism of the 1960s and ’70s by advocating an alliance of counterculture
revolutionaries with anticolonial rebels in the Third World. Marcuse’s “Berlin Lectures,” delivered to cheering young German radicals in 1973, looked forward to a period of extreme change driven by collaboration between Third World revolutionaries and the Western student movement. By the 1970s, it was also becoming clear that the Western working class, which was moving decidedly to the right, could no longer be instrumentalized as a leftist revolutionary class. Marcuse added to his revolutionary brew, perhaps as an afterthought, the rage of angry young blacks.
This was a useful course of action because, by the 1960s, blacks had become more and more drawn into revolutionary activism, although they would soon be joined by others in what can be described as the post-Marxist left. Although members of what eventually evolved into the woke, antifascist left looked for an “oppressed class,” their choices had nothing to do with Marx’s proletariat. The real working class wanted nothing to do with cultural revolutionaries, and fights broke out between the two groups in American cities in the 1960s.
Marcuse and his followers also fatefully redefined the “realm of needs,” as understood in traditional Marxism. No longer was it the labor required to sustain the working class but rather the acquisition of psychological and esthetic fulfillment. This lent weight to the complaint that capitalism was emotionally repressive. In the post-World War II Western context, the capitalist form of production was accused of leaving the youthful vanguard of a future revolution inwardly stunted. Marcuse believed Western countries were materially able to create a “rational economy”—that is, a socialist one—but simply lacked the will and the vision to establish the sexually and economically liberated society that he desired.
Such ideas represent a countercultural alternative to traditional Marxism as well as to the still recognizably bourgeois Christian society that Marcuse and other Critical Theorists hoped to transform. Communist parties throughout the West as well as Soviet critics condemned this reconfiguring of Marxism as a distortion of Marx’s dialectical materialism. Instead of highlighting the class struggle centered on the ownership of productive forces, Critical Theorists were talking about fighting prejudice and increasing erotic satisfaction. If such notions passed for Marxist theory, so went the critique; these notions would reduce a true revolutionary doctrine based on an analysis of material forces to a bourgeois campaign against emotional repression and discrimination. The invective against this transmogrified Marxism among Communists and orthodox Marxists was every bit as furious as those denunciations against the Frankfurt School that have issued from the Christian right.
The woke left is an even more grotesque distortion of Marxism than anything the interwar and postwar Frankfurt School brought forth. This left has shed any recognizable Marxist theory, but it continues to venerate Communist heroes while appealing to the interwar struggle between the Communist left and “fascism.” Despite socialist proposals that occasionally enter woke wish lists, corporate capitalists are integral to the post-Marxist left. Nor are such capitalists likely to suffer any ill effects even if the green agenda that most Western countries are pushing is put more broadly into effect.
Corporate capitalists who donate money to the Democratic National Committee and to its counterparts in Western Europe and the Anglosphere will not go begging if the eco-militants get their way. The state-protected rich are already making profits by converting to green energy. The corporate class enjoys the benefits of government contracts and having their earnings protected in tax-exempt funds. If capitalists pour their money into Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, and LGBT, it is not because they are Marxists. Rather, they represent what Pedro Gonzalez characterizes as “the counterrevolution of the left.” Citibank, Disneyworld, Coca Cola, Pfizer, etc. belong to the privileged class in woke America, and it is the predominantly white working class who will pay by taxes for the woke regime in which our corporate giants are invested.
Even the Biden administration’s proposed hike in corporate tax rates from 21 percent to 28 percent will likely impact wage earners far more than the upper 5 percent of the income scale. It has been predicted that 50 percent of these added costs will result in wage reductions and increased prices for consumers. The inflation already produced by our present administration has hurt the working and middle classes far more than the earnings of those making annually $500,000 or more, yet that is the class on which the Biden administration claims to be imposing the cost of green energy and social redistribution programs. In the end, the rich may have the least to fear from the government-manufactured rise in the price of essential goods, starting with food and fuel. According to the Congress’ Ways and Means Committee, by June of last year, Biden’s inflation had wiped out the life savings of over 26 million low-income families.
Behemoth, a famous Marxist study published by Franz Neumann in 1934, seems to be as applicable to our present ruling class as it was to economic elites under the Third Reich. Neumann’s study may be describing our woke capitalists even more plausibly than those German plutocrats whom Neumann thought were building a corporate state in alliance with Hitler. Curiously, German industrialists and bankers may have been more reluctant to jump onto the Nazi train than our corporate elites have been to join the cheering gallery for gender reassignment and anti-white racism. In any case it is exceedingly difficult to imagine that “American Marxists” would threaten the corporate wealth of our crony capitalist wokesters.
Unlike Marxism, moreover, the woke left has long ceased paying homage to science and rationality. The left is driven by hate against traditional Americans with fixed gender roles, communal hierarchies, and some form of inherited religious faith. Truth, for the woke left, is determined and redefined by those in power. Woke beliefs have no necessary connection to what is empirically provable, since from the woke perspective, Western science and empirical demonstration are tainted by white, masculine, racist prejudice. Communism in Europe, at least in practice, never showed the frenzied nihilistic energy that seems endemic to the woke left. From tearing down statues to abolishing genders to inciting mob violence against white Americans to throwing open borders for invasion by Third World migrants, the woke left seems far more socially and culturally destructive than most past Communist governments.
The end goal of wokeism is universal equality, which is to be brought about through a universal state. It opposes particularity, at least in the Western white world, and works to obliterate anything that is specifically Western. Indeed, wokeism offers the example of a thoroughly unhinged left that Communist governments and parties, as well as the Cold War in the West, all kept in check. Wokeism privileges those with deviant sexual appetites, anti-Christian and antiwhite fixations, and repugnance for bourgeois institutions, groups whom the Communists quite properly kept from rising in their parties and governments. The Communists held generally traditional moral views even if they practiced tyranny.
Unfortunately, the post-war conservative movement became so obsessed with “fighting Communism” that it failed to notice the far more dangerous enemy gathering its forces domestically. And by the end phase of the Cold War in the 1980s, neoconservatives were frequently making the charge that Communist regimes discriminated against homosexuals. This charge was perfectly true because in comparison to leftward-drifting Western countries, Communist governments were, in some sense, more socially conservative.
Moreover, those Eastern European governments—including the northeastern parts of Germany—that were formerly under Soviet control have resisted woke takeover far better than Western Europe, the U.S., and the Anglosphere. The complaint that these regions never underwent proper antifascist instruction, a charge that I address in my book on antifascism, is, all things considered, correct. The “all things considered” in this case would refer to their undergoing a process of change that would make these regions look and think like Canada, the German Federal Republic, or the American state of California at the present hour.
Also worth noting is the duplicitous role of the woke left regarding Islamic inroads into West. Since promoting a Muslim presence and Muslim influence in Western societies is now linked to the multicultural left, critics of Islamicization are assigned by virtue of this practice to the far right. In reality, pushback against Islamic culture comes from the woke left more than from any recognizable right. Those who loudly protest that Muslims oppose feminism and discriminate against homosexuals are by no means conservative. They are simply more consistent in their progressive views than those on the woke left who treat Islamic patriarchy indulgently, that is, those on the left who make excuses for non-Western male chauvinism and non-Christian theocracy.
Hazony’s key point in identifying the woke left as Marxist is their shared focus on the historical struggle between the oppressors and oppressed. This struggle is certainly foundational for Marx and the Marxists, but it is one that other ideologies and movements have embraced as well. This dialectic has roots in both the Old and New Testaments, in which the suffering servants of the Lord or the chosen people eventually triumph over their oppressors. In the Bible, the righteous are destined to prevail over those who are persecuting them, thanks to divine assistance. Marx, it may be argued, was putting a scientific covering over an ancient belief, the lineaments of which he did not invent. He was adapting an ancient narrative to new material circumstances while invoking the mystique of 19th-century science.
A similar narrative has surfaced among those who are not typically associated with the left. From the time the Italian fascist movement was founded in November 1921, references were made among their leaders to the Italian people as an oppressed nation, a theme that already surfaces in the 19th-century Italian anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia.” Mussolini’s orations featured unkind references to democratic plutocrats, by which he had in mind English and Americans capitalist regimes. The speech that Il Duce delivered on June 10, 1940, when he declared war on England and France in alliance with Nazi Germany, appeals to L’Italia proletaria e fascista (“proletarian and fascist Italy”).
This does not prove that Mussolini was a Marxist; nor were the Nazis, who compared Germany after the Treaty of Versailles to the crucified Christ; nor are the Poles who have called themselves “the Christ of nations.” Many groups and nations have drawn on images of the suffering Just, unjustly exploited, to characterize their struggles against putative oppressors, a characterization that hardly qualifies them as Marxists under a different name.
In the seventh chapter of Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Hazony highlights the replacement of post-World War Two liberalism by woke collectivism. Such a changing of the guard is seen in the abandonment of the principle of open discussion, and even disagreement, in favor of group cohesion. We also find self-identified liberals expressing horror at the closing of open discussion by others on the left. This closed-mindedness has caused those who cling to a “liberal” identity to protest woke cohesiveness and to call for a return to a free society.
Hazony’s observation is accurate but may require qualification. The liberalism that the woke left cancelled was a greatly weakened form of the liberal persuasion, the exponents of which had already ceased to argue very convincingly for open discussion. For decades, that attenuated liberalism excluded the right, except for a moderate centrist version of it that would not upset leftist gatekeepers. The parameters of allowable discussion on many issues had become more and more restricted before a late modern form of liberalism gave up the ghost entirely. By then, universities were already being ideologically controlled while both government and the media had prepared the way for this postliberal age.
Liberalism in its last stages did not suffer from an indiscriminate tolerance, a condition that thinkers as diverse as Joseph Schumpeter and Carl Schmitt viewed as liberalism’s great weakness. Quite to the contrary! Late modern liberalism moved in the direction of what became the woke left even while clinging to the illusion of openness. And those who complain about leftist intolerance practiced the same vice in relation to the right, until they were overtaken by greater powers on the left. They then became the fashionable mourners of a lost tolerance, the loss of which they themselves helped bring about.
This observation is not meant to invalidate Hazony’s larger point, which is correct. At some point in the last 20 years, the very ideal of open discussion and debate fell into disrepute both in institutions of higher learning and in the media. What had become a shrunken, denatured liberalism was abandoned for a successor ideology: wokeism. Further, there may be no way back to what has been resoundingly repudiated and what took generations to collapse. Only an equally determined collectivism can effectively resist those who have ended the liberal era, or what became the pale imitation of one.