Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Marx Was Not Woke

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.


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