There is a fascinating and (for the most part) healthy debate going on at the moment on the Right about the origins of “Wokeism.” Both defenders of classical liberalism and nationalists such as the Israeli author Yoram Hazony see it as a distortion of that creed, caused by Marxism. Some use the term “cultural Marxists,” popularized by Jordan Peterson and others, to describe those left-wing activists they think have perverted liberalism. They cite their disregard for things like free speech as evidence of this.
On the other side, paleoconservatives such as Paul Gottfried point out that Marxists traditionally had no interest in things like rights for gays or transgenderism, and that these are manifestations of the individualist streak in liberalism, not Marxism. The philosopher Edward Feser has tried to stake out a middle ground between these two points of view.
I think the paleocons are basically correct and that the term “cultural Marxism” is a misnomer, though I don’t really have a problem with conservatives using it in polemics. Marxism has a resonance with people that Liberalism does not, and there is no reason to abandon the term if it is politically effective. But whereas this debate on the Right has focused thus far on ideas and philosophy, my reasons are more historical in nature.
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Liberals don’t associate Liberalism with revolution and subversion, which they do with Wokeism. But this is a case of historical forgetting on their part. Anglophone liberals especially find it hard to recognize Wokeism as a mutation of their beliefs because Liberalism has been the elite ideology in these countries for so long that it is difficult to remember their origins as a revolutionary creed.
(It is also, of course, advantageous for Liberals not to draw too much attention to how much of society they control and to portray themselves as on the side of the oppressed. This is the reason for the silly dustup on Twitter recently, where NPR refused to accept that it was a federally funded enterprise, despite this being the case.)
But Liberalism is a revolutionary ideology, as its continental European history clearly demonstrates. Liberalism emerged as the revolutionary creed of the emancipated middle classes from the French Revolution, seeking to remake society and free themselves from medieval institutions of inherited privilege—monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church. The French Revolution birthed socialism as well, but the term “liberal” originated in Spain in the early 19th century, applied to the party in the Spanish Cortes that wanted to get the Church out of politics and sympathized with French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Another reason Liberals misunderstand Wokeness for communism is that Anglophone liberals have little experience with actual communist societies, or actual communists. One such person who does is the Polish philosopher and politician Ryszard Legutko. His book The Demon in Democracy recounts many of the similarities between liberalism and communism, gleaned from his experience of Poland going from a communist to a liberal democratic society. He noted how easily former communist members transitioned into the newly democratic Poland.
Revolutionary ideologies require a corrupt establishment to overthrow and oppress social elements to transform into their image; and in nineteenth-century Liberalism, this meant inherited privilege of the aristocracy and the working classes. In this regard, Liberalism has always had much in common with Marxism. Both were against privilege and for equality. The main difference was how they claimed to transform society with their respective revolutions: Liberalism claimed to make people into self-reliant individuals, while communism claimed to bring about a perfectly egalitarian society.
They also differed on the nature of society, of course, with Marx seeing it as materialistic, while Liberalism, though emphasizing prosperity, never dogmatized in quite the same way about this. Marxism was more openly attached to violent revolution, but this does not mean liberalism somehow achieved all of its aims through consensus at the ballot box. The “Liberal” revolutions of the nineteenth century in Europe and Latin America were often violent ones.
Liberals sometimes like to make a distinction between classical Liberalism and what they consider aberrations, such as the Progressive movement of the late 19th century, but this won’t do. They seem to think that because Radical Republicans and Progressives were willing to use state power to reshape society this means they were somehow not Liberals, but this was more a matter of means than ends.
Both Liberals and their fellow travelers since the 19th century have seen formal education as a panacea for social ills—that is, the means of reshaping the beliefs of classes they didn’t like into their own image (rural people, the working classes, foreigners). But those who were too impatient with slow evolutionary change but whose goals were essentially the same as Liberals get labeled “Progressives” as if they did not have the same goals, which they did. This is largely why many Liberals cower in the face of the Woke—because they deplore the means but don’t really disagree on the substance. They just think the revolution should proceed more slowly and peacefully.
It is true that more conservative Liberals want to safeguard property and individual rights, but these sorts of procedural goods never satisfy the more idealistic among them, who yearn for a purer, more just world than actually exists. That is why even in countries that have never experienced a “Liberal” revolution, such as the United States, liberals often act “illiberally,” i.e., pursue their goals directly through state power.
Whenever there are social upheavals that allow these more radical, idealistic Liberals to take power, they attempt to remake society: the problems of urbanization gave Progressives their chance, while the Civil Rights movement and racial strife gave the New Left theirs in the ’60s. The Great Recession and Covid birthed the reign of the Woke. But they all share recognizably liberal goals of making society more egalitarian.
It is true, however, that communists managed to infiltrate Liberal societies like the U.S. and the U.K. in the 1930s and later in the 1960s. Peter Hitchens, brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, was a Trotskyist in the 1960s, and he recalls all of his fellow travelers who went into government or business with the idea of revolution in their heads, including the future Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Trotskyist like himself. This sort of thing may have acted as a catalyst, reactivating the revolutionary element within the Liberal tradition.
But it did not make them communists. Many of the New Left vanguard, the precursors of our Woke overlords, were children of privilege, like Blair, or Bill Ayers in the United States. They may have adopted Marxist tactics, but they were too bourgeois to sign up for class revolution. Liberals have always despised the working classes, and once they discovered race and sex, they found oppressed groups much more congenial to their tastes. Liberals like money and the Sexual Revolution; no real Marxist could stomach working with giant corporations for the purpose of promoting transgenderism.
And that is because there are hardly any real Marxists left. Remember the Cold War? The Liberals won. Class revolution is dead. The fact that many communists in formerly Soviet countries transitioned seamlessly into Liberal Democrats is because, as Legutko pointed out, once the materialism and class conflict of Marxism were discredited, there were few real differences left between them.
Does any of this matter? Who cares if its inspiration is Liberalism or Marxism, so long as Wokeism is defeated? I have written previously in these pages that social conservatives have no choice but to make political alliances with elites who might not share their beliefs completely. This includes classical Liberals who oppose “Wokeness.” I stand by that assertion.
But social and religious conservatives should be wary in making such alliances nonetheless. Many “classical” or conservative Liberals share some assumptions with the Woke—above all, a belief in the basic rightness of the Sexual Revolution. These oppose transgenderism but are fine with same-sex “marriage,” not seeing the link between them. To repeat, many Liberals are going the same direction as their more “revolutionary” brethren, only more slowly. As long as Liberalism exists, it will always be capable of spawning more extreme versions of itself, which is precisely what “Wokeism” is.