Why Wokeism Is Not Marxist

And Why It Matters.

On an August 2021 episode of his Fox News talk show, Mark Levin chatted with his guest, Paul Kengor, the author of The Devil and Karl Marx. The two talked about the thesis of Levin’s book American Marxism, which argues that the ascendant leftist “wokeism” in America today is actually Marxist. They agreed that the core of Marxism is, in Kengor’s words, the desire to “hammer people into categories…. [Marxists] pit you against one another, and they tell you ‘You are in that group, and you are in that group, and they are your foe.’”

Levin and Kengor are correct that the rise of the woke movement poses an existential threat to American society. But opposing it successfully will require correctly understanding the nature of wokeism, and their conversation was indicative of grave misunderstanding. Human beings have been doing in-group/out-group organizing—along national, religious, linguistic, and cultural lines—and using this as a basis for identity and distinction from other groups, for as long as there have been human beings. Marx, who was born in 1818, could hardly have invented this game. It is even played by conservatives, and sometimes for good reason.

Kengor and Levin would likely agree that there are important group distinctions, for example, between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Though conflict is sometimes produced by those differences, this does not imply that the differences themselves could or should be erased. It also does not mean these three groups are each made up of Marxists or that Marxists somewhere dreamed up the group distinctions as part of their own nefarious plans.

However insufficient the answer they provide, though, the question Levin and Kengor engaged must be carefully considered. How much does wokeism share with Marxism, and why do their similarities and differences matter for those who would challenge both?

The core of Marx’s view of human society is the primacy of political economy over culture and the distinction between socioeconomic classes. The individuals who make up a society may be empirically described according to many variables. They may have varying religious beliefs. They could have differing ethnic and linguistic profiles. They likely, in 2023 America, display variation in their sexual attitudes, behaviors, and identities.

But all of this, for Marx, is secondary. Indeed, “secondary” is not sufficiently descriptive in relaying precisely how comparatively unimportant Marx found all these cultural categories. What matters, according to Marx, is the relationship of different classes to the means of production. Do the members of a class own the means of production—the material apparatus from tools to factories that are needed to produce goods—or do they not? Answer that question, and you know the dynamics of class relations and conflict in that society. Those dynamics determine everything else.

Some conservatives talk about the relationship between ownership of the means of production and control over the realm of ideas in a way that is indistinguishable from the Marxian view. They bemoan the fact that the mainstream media are able to reach a much larger audience and therefore exert greater influence over what Americans think than the conservative media are able to do. But such an assessment only echoes Marx’s argument that the social class in control of the means of production will inevitably produce the dominant ideas in a given society. Material conditions of production are always the cause of what Marx referred to as the superstructure—the ideas, beliefs, and values that people hold by virtue of their position in the class structure. The power of mainstream media to exert ideological influence is based on their ability to virtually monopolize the communicative technologies and the apparatus required to get ideas out to a mass audience.

Culture and economics are interconnected in complex ways, but they are separable topics. Some of the confusion of those who equate Marxism and wokeism stems from a lack of clarity on this point. They note that some Marxists in the wake of World War I began to focus greater attention on culture. This is true, and there were factors in the political context of the day that produced this shift. Many Marxists had believed, in the days before the outbreak of the war, that the moment for revolution was ripe in those Western European societies that represented the heights of capitalist development. But instead of global revolution, what arrived was global war on a destructive scale never before imagined. This was followed by the failure of revolutionary communist movements across Western Europe and finally by the emergence of nationalist political movements and regimes in many of those countries that had been stimulated by legitimate fears of communist agitation. Marxist rethinking was required.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci used the notion of class hegemony to understand the failure of communist revolution when the time had seemed so propitious. The bourgeois control of the realm of ideas and values turned out to be too encompassing. There was a required war of position, a struggle to present communist values to the masses so as to permit them to ideologically see through capitalism before the war of maneuver, or military takeover of the State, would be possible. Gramsci believed this war was the work of the vanguard communist intellectuals, who would educate the workers on their role in history. No revolution was possible so long as this bourgeois domination of ideas existed. Many Marxists in the West thus embarked on an effort to more effectively disseminate the Marxian ideology with the goal of thereby making revolutionary action more likely in the future.

In other words, they saw this work only as the prelude to a full-blown communist revolution. To a man, they would have found risible the idea, widespread in wokeism, that adopting the right pronouns and a proper conception of the role of white privilege in forming the Western world could constitute substantial moves toward establishing a just society. Seizure of the means of production was always the goal.

This was true even in the Frankfurt School. Herbert Marcuse, for example, came to believe that maybe the working classes were too hopelessly reactionary in late capitalism, and this might require looking to other groups—hippies and feminist radicals in the ’60s, perhaps—as a new vanguard. But none of these thinkers ever believed that social transformation of a permanent sort could be achieved without the overturning of capitalism. Indeed, those in the Frankfurt School who were most ambivalent about such prospects wound up in deeply pessimistic positions.

Their analysis of “the culture industry” reveals how consistent the Frankfurt School was with foundational Marxism and how far from wokeism even cultural Marxism is. In the penultimate chapter of their Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described how music and art function in capitalism solely as commercial enterprises, in which artistic success is measured only in sales. Consumers of popular music are drawn to the most formulaic and dumbed-down styles, which inevitably carry anti-revolutionary messages. The capitalist myth of rags to riches imbued in such a culture is taken to heart by the masses: “The deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.”

The result of all this is a mass stupification of culture, freedom from thought, and the “idolization of the cheap.” Adorno and Horkheimer are light years away from the wokeist embrace of the most benighted pop-culture products, the ones produced by nonwhites and their attack on high culture as being nothing more than white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and the rest of their dismal litany.

So the Frankfurt School’s cultural Marxists are not woke. But are wokeists nonetheless reasonably classified as Marxists? Take as an example the spectacle at the recent Grammy Awards of Sam Smith and Kim Petras. The former, who identifies as “nonbinary,” and the latter, who was born biologically male and underwent sex-change surgery as a teenager, were awarded a Grammy for a song titled “Unholy,” which they also performed at the event. This composition, which perfectly illustrates the Frankfurt School’s argument about the vulgarization of music in the culture industry, contains the following chorus: “Mummy don’t know daddy’s getting hot / At the body shop, doing something unholy.” It celebrates a married man committing adultery with a transgender prostitute. The music video resembles an orgiastic demonic ritual, a collection of dancers of indeterminate gender miming obscene sexual acts, backlit in a hellish red light. At the Grammys, many of the performers wore devil horns and red costumes and leapt about as if in a state of demonic possession. Many in the audience who raucously applauded the performers as they accepted their awards were similarly visually aligned with demonic tropes and perversely hypersexualized appearances.

The Marxist content of such a phenomenon would have utterly escaped Marx, as it does those who have read him. Here is a mass media spectacle in an industry designed fundamentally to sell products to consumers. If there is revolutionary content in this “music” that could be expected to lead listeners toward a critique of capitalism, the present writer missed it altogether. It is not even evident that such a message could be consistently packaged in such a product of a capitalist economy. The music critic Greil Marcus implies the same when he laughs at the critics of rock music from the ’50s who accused it of being part of a communist plot. Every rocker who has ever been born aspires to record the hit that makes him rich. The ’90s rock group Rage Against the Machine focused a sizable percentage of their musical output on explicitly anti-capitalist messaging. The effect of their more than 30-year career on the Marxist movement in the U.S., or anywhere else, is almost certainly nil. Yet each of the members of the group has a personal net worth of at least $20 million.

Further examples of the comfortable relationship between woke ideology and today’s elitist capitalist robber barons abound. When former Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey gave $10 million dollars to Ibram X. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, could he seriously have believed that the gift might contribute to the downfall of the very capitalist system that put all that money in his pocket to begin with? Wealthy woke donors know full well that what is going on in the anti-racism industry does not pose a threat to the economic system that made them rich. On the contrary, the most profound threat their wealth-generating system faces today is in failing to be sufficiently woke, thus angering a mob of angry consumers who might boycott their products in retaliation.

To be sure, wokeism can sometimes playact at anti-capitalist sentiment. Kendi has written that “[i]n order to truly be anti-racist, you have to truly be anti-capitalist.” But then there is his real life. Thanks to the anti-racist cultural movement, Kendi, a thoroughly mediocre thinker, now writes bestselling books. He can charge tens of thousands of dollars for brief speeches at college campuses. Like his comrades in the anti-racism scam—Robin DiAngelo, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the leaders of Black Lives Matter—Kendi is now a millionaire.

Robert Nisbet noticed something in his history of modern sociological thought, The Sociological Tradition, that is almost completely overlooked by the current wave of conservatives who want to equate wokeism and Marxism. In a fascinating passage, he illustrates how much was shared by Marx and another 19th-century thinker, who profoundly shaped conservative discourse on the family, Frédéric Le Play. The latter undertook the first large-scale empirical study of how family structure affects community strength. Like Marx, Le Play was most interested in the popular classes. Both men understood that economic deprivation was the central component of the social burden of these working-class populations. Both acutely criticized how aspects of bourgeois social order exacerbated the socioeconomic pressures these poor families faced. While Le Play’s political solution was distant from Marx’s, it is remarkable to find Marx and an undeniably conservative social theorist agreeing that the base measure of social disrepair in bourgeois democracies had to do with socioeconomic class.

Getting this topic right is not merely a matter of scholarly accuracy. The true nature of wokeism needs to be understood to further the fight against this ideology. Marxism once posed a significant danger to traditional America, but at present, it is not a Marxian anti-capitalist left that most threatens our society. It is a wokeism perfectly happy to consolidate progressive business monopolies with massive economic power over individual lives. This includes corporations—especially those controlling communication technologies—that can profoundly shape the ideology of young American minds by promoting the woke agenda to annihilate traditional Western values and morality.

In an exchange on this topic, Jason Morgan at the New Oxford Review insisted that Marxism was “originally demonic.” This spiritual valence—evidently shared with the participants in the pseudo-Satanic Mass at the Grammys and their fans and acolytes elsewhere—is for Morgan the defining characteristic of Marxism. By this reasoning, “Antifa … Nancy Pelosi … neocons … [and] cereal companies trying to turn little kids into gays and lesbians” are all Marxists because they are all “products of the same satanic rebellion against God.”

It is quite true that the outcome of all communist states modeled on Marxian thought was hell on earth for those trapped in those societies. But it is pragmatically unhelpful to define the Marxian vision in this manner. As Nisbet knew, there is some ground, however limited, that traditional conservatives share with Marxists in their mutual concern about the economic domination of ordinary Americans by a small and culturally distant elite. This distinguishes both camps neatly from the wokeists, who are supported by that elite and frequently are themselves members of it. This fact can and should be exploited when possible in the real political work of defeating wokeism.

Eric Voegelin masterfully described how much the Gnostic desire for utopia one finds in Marxism owed to the Judeo-Christian cultural ground within which that revolutionary philosophy was rooted, however much Marxists would like to avoid recognizing the fact. Marxism is, of course, a distortion of the proper Christian view of perfectibility, and it is radical in the degree to which it perverts the original. But those of us who have changed ideological positions during our lifetimes might be forgiven for believing that it makes sense for adherents of Judeo-Christian religious principles to leave open some lines of communication with the Marxists. We are going to need all the help we can get to defeat the wokeist threat.

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