It is important to emphasize at the outset that the question isn’t whether there are significant differences between wokeism on the one hand, and the ideas of Marx himself and the key Marxist thinkers who came after him on the other. No one denies that there are. The question is rather whether wokeism is best thought of as a species of Marxism, or at least whether the similarities are significant enough that the comparison with Marxism illuminates rather than obfuscates.
Here it is crucial to understand the relationship of both movements to liberalism. The broad liberal tradition from Locke to Mill to Rawls is individualist, emphasizing as it does the rights and liberties of individuals, their basic equality, and their consent to being governed as a precondition of government’s legitimacy. Hazony notes that the Marxist critique of liberalism emphasizes the inadequacy of this individualism to make sense of real political life. For Marxism, liberalism is blind to human beings’ tendency to form social classes, and to the inherent tendency of one class to oppress another and to utilize the state for this purpose.
Wokeism, Hazony points out, takes over this central Marxist theme and simply replaces economic status with race, sex, sexual orientation, and the like as the keys to demarcating oppressed and oppressing classes. Where the traditional Marxist focuses on the conflict between capitalists and the proletariat, the wokester speaks instead of “white supremacy” versus people of color, “patriarchy” versus women, “heteronormativity” versus LGBTQ, and so on. But the emphasis on group identity rather than individualism carries over from Marxism and marks a break with liberalism. Furthermore, Hazony points out, wokeism’s disdain for norms of rational discourse and inclination to cancel and censor opponents rather than engage their arguments differs from the liberal tradition’s idealization of free debate.
Gottfried acknowledges that all of this is true enough as far as it goes. He also acknowledges that there is in the history of Marxism a precedent for wokeism’s turn to obsessing over race and sex rather than economic class – namely the “Critical Theory” of the Frankfurt School, as represented especially by the work of Herbert Marcuse. All the same, he judges that Hazony and others overstate the connection between wokeism and Marxism, and fail to appreciate wokeism’s connection to liberalism.
For one thing, in the twentieth century, liberalism began to soften its individualism, with universal suffrage and the welfare state marking a turn in a strongly egalitarian direction. In recent decades, and before wokeness took center stage, mainstream liberals had also already themselves become more intolerant of dissent and unwilling rationally to engage the arguments of their critics. Though many liberals now complain of woke intolerance, the wokesters simply walked through a door that liberals had themselves opened.
For another thing, Marxists of a more old-fashioned stripe had no truck with the direction taken by the Frankfurt School, much less the obsessions of the wokesters. Indeed, they could be as censorious of this direction as any social conservative. Moreover, during the Cold War, communist countries were often as conservative on matters of sex and family as Western society, or indeed even more so. Nor were communist societies prone, as wokeism is, to destroying loyalty to country or to a general nihilism. Marxism also put a premium on science and rationality, at least in theory.
Then there is the fact that wokeism has allied itself to capitalism in a way Marxism could not. Capitalists and corporations have not simply embraced wokeism out of fear but, Gottfried argues, have found it in their interests to embrace it. For it is the poor and the working class rather than the rich who suffer from the idiocies of woke public policy, and corporations can absorb the costs of such policies whereas their smaller competitors are destroyed by them.
Finally, while the narrative of oppressor and oppressed is indeed a feature of Marxism, it is also, Gottfried points out, a feature of the rhetoric of fascism and Nazism. And in all three cases, he claims, what we have is a modern and secularized variation on the ancient biblical distinction between the righteous and those who persecute them. So, that a narrative of oppression is central to wokeism does not suffice to make it in any interesting way Marxist, any more than these other views are Marxist.
Hence, Gottfried’s view is that in order to understand wokeism, it is more illuminating to study its origins in the breakdown of liberalism than to look for parallels with Marxism.
What should we think of all this? I am myself inclined to what might be a middle ground position between Hazony and Gottfried, though perhaps the differences between us are more matters of semantics and emphasis than anything deeper than that. On the one hand, when writing on these matters myself I have not characterized wokeism as a species of Marxism, but rather have merely noted that there are Marxist influences on wokeism and parallels between the views. On the other hand, while Gottfried makes some important points, I think that the influences and parallels are more important and illuminating than he seems to allow. I think he also overstates the differences.
For example, Gottfried contrasts Marxism’s notional commitment to science and reason with the irrationalism of wokeism. But on the one hand, wokesters in general do not explicitly reject science and reason any more than old-fashioned Marxism did. On the contrary, they typically claim that science supports their views (about gender, for example). To be sure, these claims are bogus and the “science” pure ideology tarted up in pseudoscientific drag. But the same thing was true of Marxist claims to scientific respectability. (Lysenkoism, anyone?)
Moreover, though the Marxist theory of ideology was claimed to be part of a scientific account of social institutions, in practice its “hermeneutics of suspicion” tends to subvert rather than facilitate rational discourse. Criticisms of Marxism get dismissed a priori as mere smokescreens for the vested interests of capitalists, just as criticisms of wokeism get dismissed a priori as mere smokescreens for racism, patriarchy, homophobia, etc. Then there are the parallels many have noted between the mass hysteria of wokeism (manifested in Twitter mobs, cancel culture, and the riots of 2020) and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
To be sure, the postmodernist influences on wokeism are a point in favor of Gottfried’s view that there is an important difference at least in theory between traditional Marxism and wokeism in their attitudes toward reason and science. But the record of actual Marxist and woke practice (which Gottfried himself appeals to in making his case) supports the judgment that they are less far apart on this score than Gottfried supposes.
The same thing is true where the other differences Gottfried describes are concerned. Yes, during the Cold War, communist countries were far more socially conservative than any wokester could tolerate. But that was in spite of Marxist theory, not because of it. Engels, after all, famously attacked the traditional family and the bourgeois moral order. And Marxist theory emphasized international worker solidarity over national loyalties, even if this is not how things worked out in practice. Even the alliance between corporations and wokeism finds a parallel in actual Marxist practice, in the Chinese Communist Party’s adoption of capitalist means to socialist ends.
Then there is the fact that woke theorists explicitly acknowledge the Marxist tradition as among the influences on them. For example, Critical Race Theorists acknowledge such influence, especially that of Antonio Gramsci (even if there are, of course, also differences with Marxism). And Gottfried himself acknowledges the parallels between wokeism and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School.
These points do not entail that wokeism is a child of Marxism, exactly, but that does not mean it is not a relation of some other sort – a brother or a cousin, say. And noting family relations of those kinds can be illuminating too. Eric Voegelin famously argued that Marxism, National Socialism, and other modern political ideologies are best understood as variations on Gnosticism. I have argued elsewhere that wokeness, too, is best understood as a kind of Gnosticism. And I have also argued that the parallels between woke ideas about race and National Socialism are no less striking or disturbing than their parallels with Marxism. That does not mean that wokeism just is a kind of National Socialism, any more than it just is a kind of Marxism. It is its own thing, not quite the same as either of those noxious worldviews. But it is no less irrational, and potentially just as dangerous.