Christopher Rufo’s The Cultural Revolution: How the Left Conquered Everything (HarperCollins, 2023) tells the story of the Left’s “long march through the institutions”: der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen, a slogan of German student activist Rudi Dutschke, inspired by Antonio Gramsci: the successful transposition of the Long March of Mao’s army to and from Hunan that resulted in eventual victory into a strategy of ideological takeover of the major American institutions, leading to their present state of domination by the political perspective designated as “wokeness” or “identity politics”—more accurately described as victimary thinking.
Rufo’s jargon-free narrative is divided into sections devoted to Herbert Marcuse and the New Left, Angela Davis and Black Power, the influence of Brazilian radical Paulo Freire’s educational project, and the more recent spread of “anti-racism,” leading to the triumph of DEI. This march of conquest has led from the university to the school system, the government bureaucracy, and the major corporations, using nothing more than psychological manipulation on a backdrop of occasional street violence (most egregiously in 2020 after George Floyd’s death).
As someone who lived through this entire period in a university context, first at SUNY Fredonia from 1965-67, where I engaged in protests against the Vietnam War, then at Indiana University in Bloomington from 1967-69, and finally at UCLA, from which I retired in 2015, I am familiar with most of the developments he describes. But I am grateful to his history for integrating those of which I was less aware: the pedagogical influence of Freire, and especially the key role played by Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell and his followers in translating the Black Panther mystique into the academically acceptable terms of DEI. Above all, I had not fully experienced what Rufo reveals to have been the fundamental continuity of this “long march” that links the days of the New Left to the era of wokeness that emerged with the Obama presidency.
One major feature of the woke constellation not dealt with by Rufo, and generally omitted from critiques of “identity politics” despite its vast economic and social implications, is its ecological sector, more salient in Europe than in the US, but in either case a major source of left-wing political activism and litigation—and government spending. The rush to end the reign of the internal combustion engine and make oil drilling increasingly onerous is largely taken for granted by analogy with victimary identity politics, placing the natural world’s geological and biological makeup in the present era of “climate change” at the top of the list of “victims” of human activity in general and capitalist economies in particular.
Rufo does not focus on the victimary nature of this transformation of revolutionary ideology, which the too-frequent use of the term Marxist obfuscates rather than clarifies. The point of Gramsci’s “cultural Marxism” was not to overthrow institutional structures from without but to transform and capture them from within, and more specifically, to capture the conscience of society’s ruling caste. To observe our institutions today is to realize how what remains at base a capitalist market system can maintain itself largely unchanged while affirming and adopting policies of “equity” or “social justice” derived from revolutionary ideologies.
Yet tracing the historical course of this “march” reveals it to be a far less one-sided phenomenon than I had previously realized. There is no doubt that after the decline of the New Left following SDS’s “Weatherman” turn to radical activism, the success of this ideological campaign demonstrates the power of the new victimary form of the epistemology of resentment that has gained control of all our major institutions by parasitizing from within the traces of Judeo-Christian morality in the conscience of the near-totality of our professional classes. The current absurdities of Wokism might risk its being seen as a temporary fad if Rufo and others had not made clear that it is in fact the logical product of a trek of over five decades. All this is evident; in contrast, the hidden ambivalence of this unprecedented synthesis cannot be grasped without a certain distancing, one that I believe Rufo’s history can help us to attain. For if, on the one hand, the leftist revolution has indeed marched through the institutions, establishing new criteria of justice and new terminologies and creating an overall context for which the old expression white guilt is no longer adequate, on the other, it has left largely intact the economic as well as the political structures of American society that provide the potential machinery of the revolution’s reversal.
Wokism is, if not a “religion,” certainly a form of sacrality, one that owes much to the Christian reversal of hierarchical moral values to honor the victim over the oppressor. By this means, it permits the predominantly white upper class, by confessing to their society’s “systemic racism,” to atone for their “privilege” and thereby occupy the moral high ground in comparison with the traditional white middle class, whose common-sense notions of respectability only demonstrate its “deplorable” moral state.
But on reflection, what this suggests is that we should understand this “cultural revolution” not as an unambiguous victory of the Left over the Right, but as an anomalous and unprecedented synthesis, one that has all but silenced the old Left’s language of class struggle, and whose focus on identity politics, however spurious it may be as a doctrine of liberation, has managed to permit the survival of a still reasonably efficient market-based economy in a political system that remains in form a “liberal democracy” under the U. S. Constitution.
Seen from this perspective, although on the one hand this ideological transformation is destructive of the traditional social values that had permitted the emergence and flourishing of the liberal-democratic model, on the other, it can equally well be seen as this model’s ultimate cooption of the revolutionary spirit, transforming what were to be acts of liberation, violent transfers of power from one class to another, into almost entirely symbolic acts that leave the old social infrastructure all but untouched—while hollowing out the intellectual basis of the Marxist doctrine of class-conflict.
However distasteful this new politico-economic system may appear to those respectful of the Western tradition of thought and religion, its long-term non-viability is not for all that demonstrated. There is no really appropriate point of comparison. The world’s other Western-style democracies all differ from the US with respect to the historical depth of their victimary/racial conflicts, no other Western country having an internal population comparable to American blacks who a century after the Emancipation were still subject to considerable discrimination, and not only in the South.
The problems occasioned in Europe by the growing Muslim population are both more radical and less organic than those of the US. What appears to be the growing hostility of this population to Western civil society and its refusal to assimilate into it, given in particular its constant expansion in tandem with Europe’s falling birthrate, makes the future of these European nations ominously unclear, and certainly prevents them from serving as examples to the US. Or to take Japan as exemplary of a nation that has insisted as far as possible on maintaining the cohesion of its autochthonous ethnicity, we must question its long-term viability as a major power under the condition of a continuously shrinking population.
Leaving aside the lesser autocracies, the parlous state of China’s economy following Xi’s recent crackdown on the entrepreneur class demonstrates all too clearly that, as in the Soviet Union, socialist economies, whatever their capacity for government-sponsored invention in military and related sectors, simply cannot function with the efficiency of market systems. Although Xi’s increasingly authoritarian evolution cannot be proved to have been inevitable, coming after Deng Xiaoping’s apparently successful liberalization, it certainly points to the difficulty of maintaining such a mixed economy in the long term.
This discussion suggests that, putting our political preferences aside, it would be a useful exercise to consider as likely the relative stability of the current “woke” system, provided that it rid itself of its excesses (such as its obsession with transsexualism) and, through the traditional mechanism of Democratic-Republican alternance, attain or at least approach the semi-stable state that characterized the US from the New Deal until the end of the Cold War.
In other words, instead of judging the ideological basis of the present order from the perspective of a pre-established ideal, we should examine its chances for enduring under the assumption that its future evolution is not predetermined by its current leftist-activist orientation, but that a new point of equilibrium will emerge over the next few years that will permit the restoration of relatively civil relations among the parties.
This is not to say that the political force of the epistemology of resentment would simply disappear, but its excesses would no longer be tolerated, and a new version of “common sense” would permit the partial healing of the current radical political divide. Wokeness’ positive features, e.g., avoiding stereotyping and cultivating cross-cultural sensitivity while avoiding wasting natural resources, can be purged of their vindictiveness. It strikes me as significant that, in my personal experience, everyday relations between races and ethnic groups have not deteriorated but rather improved over the past decade; and the same is true for those between the sexes. And no doubt they would continue to improve even more if the power-structure became a bit less tolerant of the excesses of cry-bullying and Antifa-type activism.
For there is today little real public support for the visions of Marcuse, Davis, Freire, and Bell in their literal sense, despite their widespread diffusion in teacher’s manuals and university course curricula. The deteriorating conditions in most of our major cities are clearly not being reversed through the “decarceration” of criminals and the refusal to prosecute and punish all but the most serious crimes, nor by the conditions in majority-minority public schools, where the laxity of academic standards and failure to maintain order turn out graduates well below par in both literacy and numeracy. And as Thomas Sowell and others have pointed out, the deleterious effect of the welfare system on the family structure of the lower income classes cannot be blamed on “systemic racism”—indeed, as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart pointed out over a decade ago, it is having the same effect on the working-class white family as on the black.
No doubt we do not have an indefinite amount of time to reestablish a healthy political balance. Since the turn of the century, the world has become less stable and the power of the US to control events has greatly diminished. In order to preserve the world order from an unprecedented catastrophe, it is increasingly necessary that the US and its allies demonstrate to the rest of the world a level of cohesion and military readiness that discourages any temptation to full-scale war.
The critical necessity in American politics today is to liberate ourselves from the self-destructiveness of victimary thinking in order to face such problems as crime, family breakdown, climate change and resource management in a rational manner, one that treats the perpetuation of human life as the single greatest value. Once more, the anthropological truth of the great religions is the best cure for the anti-human excesses of political and ecological fanaticism.
A similar point can be made about the troublesome decay of civic values that allows the current administration to refuse to seal the border against illegal immigration. The advantage of the liberal-democratic system is that, in principle at least, it allows such matters to be debated and rational solutions worked out through compromise and debate. The current knee-jerk Leftism of the Democratic Party should not be taken as the final word.
Whence the particular importance of the 2024 election cycle (see Chronicle 781). For those of us who still believe in the viability of America’s liberal-democratic system and in the world’s need for the values that it has guaranteed since 1945, our next presidential election will indeed provide a crucial test.