Sometimes we hear the following argument:
Wokery is Cultural Marxism. Originally Marxism was about class struggle and oppression. What happened in the late twentieth century, with the breakdown of old heavy industry and the decline of the old working class, was that Marxists began to study other forms of oppression: and hence other objects of oppression, which they understood in classical Marxist manner as being oppressed by the capitalist system of expropriation. Wokery is Marxist because it continually talks about capitalism, neoliberalism and so on as cause, and various forms of oppression as consequence.
I don’t like this argument. I think it is slack and careless. This is because it involves a misrepresentation of Marxism – and this has to be said even before we say that Marxism necessarily involves a misrepresentation of Marx (as Marx himself said when he said he was not a Marxist).
So let us consider Marx, and then consider Marxism.
Marx, broadly speaking, was an extremely penetrating and weighty thinker who attempted to build a singular and systematic explanation of society out of German philosophy, French socialism and English political economy. These three elements were compatible in some respects, but not in others: Hegel and Adam Smith would have been appalled. Marx forced the three elements together, but as Gareth Stedman Jones has shown in his long biography of Marx, he did so in such a way that his theories were continually undermined by the fact that history appeared not to be playing along with those theories: so he seemed, as he tried to ring the changes, to have developed as many as three different logics within his system. In addition, Stedman Jones, to the displeasure of Marxists, has concluded that Marx was, ultimately, only attempting to work out what to think “after Christianity”: so that in fact the original set of problems he wanted to deal with were religious rather than secular, social or political.
Marxism, on the other hand, is a distillation of a sharp economic and political doctrine out of Marx’s complicated and multifarious works. This is the system which was initially promulgated by Engels, then Kautsky and Bernstein, and adapted in various ways by Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemberg, Sorel, and Lukacs, and which, in Britain, of course, was defanged and renamed by the Fabians: Webb, Shaw and others, including for a time Wells – which is why Marxism never had much direct purchase in Britain, despite intelligentsia revivals in the 1930s and 1960s. Fanged ‘Marxism’ consisted of, broadly speaking, the expectation, courtesy of ‘dialectical materialism’ (that is, of the dynamic history of economic processes of production and distribution), that the contemporary control of the economic and political system by the ‘bourgeois’ class of capitalist oppressors would experience an inevitable crisis as a consequence of the working out of its own logic – a crisis called a ‘revolution’ – which would lead to the emancipation of the ‘proletarian’ class, and thus an end of all oppression, immiseration and alienation. This would be a revolution-for-all, since even the capitalists, though not oppressed or immiserated, were and are, even now, alienated. Therefore, the emancipation of the proletariat would be, no matter how it was achieved, the emancipation of everyone. It would be a universal revolution.
The ambiguities of all this are obvious to any undergraduate who has to write an essay about it. Even Marx was sometimes unclear about whether this great revolution was the end of history or not. According to his original assumption about the persistence and continuity of class struggle in history, he thought it was not. But according to his theory of emancipation, he thought it was. (Marxism is basically Waiting for Godot, rewritten as if Godot has come, but as if nothing has changed despite his coming: Beckett’s “Nothing to be done” being a happy translation into English of Lenin’s “Something to be done”.)
Anyhow, Marxism is magnificently complicated. Its western varieties can be studied in Kolakowski’s unsympathetic Main Currents of Marxism and Perry Anderson’s sympathetic Considerations on Western Marxism. And that is before we consider Eastern Marxism on the one hand and the defanged Fabian varieties which have given us ‘social democracy’ on the other. But if anything, Marxism has become even more complicated as the original 19th Century confidence in it as theory and the subsequent 20th Century confidence in it as practice has faded: as the 1968ers, the Badious and Zizeks and Giddenses and Agambens have cascaded all over the place, turning Marxism into a Maoist-Lacanian-Blairite-Foucauldian academic commonplaces of myriadic confusion and complexity. And even this is before we get to the 2008ers (zéro-huitards): who would be condemned by all of the 1968 generation (except in so far as they prioritise wanting an audience over maintaining some sort of quality control). The 2008 generation is the one which has knitted all the new enthusiasms of the 1960s and 1970s together, all those enthusiasms of race and sex, and formed them into a finally unified ‘intersectional’ movement, usually symbolised by a rainbow.
Even the story I tell here seems to suggest that adding Black to the Union Jack and adding Pink to the Pound are the latest manifestations of Marxism. But they are not. For we have to recognise two things. The first is that rainbow intersectionalist Wokery is much more Liberal than Marxist. The second is that Wokery is itself susceptible to a harsh Marxist analysis. These two claims are short and simple and, I think, irrefutable.
First, Wokery is Liberal. Just became something is about ‘oppression’ does not mean it is part of a Marxist politics. We had attempts to deal with oppression long before Marx. Consider Spartacus or Tiberius Gracchus or Wycliffe. And it is in fact the great ideological strand we now call ‘Liberalism’ that brought into modern politics a consistent and coherent concern with the disadvantaged and with minorities. Byron, who helped found the journal The Liberal in the 1820s, was an enthusiast for an independent Greece, and so more or less invented the romantic politics of the underdogs of empire. Much modern Wokery is simply the Byronism of a later age: with Blacks or Trans instead of Greeks. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty outlined the basic arguments for the liberal hope that freedom of discussion – that is, not eliminating the views of minorities – would lead to moral and scientific improvement. His great enemy was what he and Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”. For centuries Liberalism has been opposed to the (unenlightened) majority and in favour of (enlightened) minorities. It is a form of aristocracy twisted to bring it into the democratic age. And surely this is at the intellectual root of Wokery. (And this is the case even though modern Social Justice Warriors are now a species of Liberal so sure of themselves that they feel entitled to suppress freedom of discussion.) All the modern intersectional obsessions – racism, anti-Semitism, empire, slavery, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, etc. – are, in the West at least, simply outgrowths of a Liberal inclination to side with minorities against the majority. The whole thing is more Liberal than Marxist, even if Marxists have come in afterwards to offer grand and dubious explanations for what is going on.
(It is worth noting the grotesque irony that this Liberal siding-with-minorities-against-the-majority has become a majority position. This paradox is causing almost all the confusion currently seen in our culture.)
Second, it is possible to make a harsh Marxist analysis of Wokery. Marx himself was partly responsible – along with Napoleon – for turning the silly word ‘ideology’ into a word of sharp political significance. Napoleon called his enemies idéologistes; and Marx, not to be outdone, used the word Ideologie for everything he was opposed to. However, unlike Napoleon, Marx had a theory of ideology. His theory was that ‘ideology’ was the intellectual superstructure generated by a dominant class (or the lackeys and lickspittles of that dominant class) to justify its domination: it was, as he also put it, a “false consciousness”: incantation and intoxication to create the dream-like haze which would enable the machinery to do its inexorable work. The bourgeoisie believed in their intellectual justifications not because they were true, but because it served their purposes to espouse them, to educate their successor generations into them, and even to create a system of belief for them.
Now, what is Wokery but an elaborate and radicalised set of ideological beliefs designed to defend certain novel changes in the elite systems of our civilisations? No doubt some of the Woke themselves feel marginalised: but they are usually either the very young or the very radical or the very poor, whereas it is obvious to those of us who have never had any interest in Wokery that it is most importantly an extremely nasty and devastating set of multipurpose weapons in the armoury of the new elites who have taken over our institutions in the religious, political and moral vacuum which has been British culture since the 1960s. British culture is not without its distractions or charm: antique heritage on the one hand (Stonehenge, the Queen, St Paul’s) and recent heritage on the other (Red Buses, Sir Paul McCartney, the Shard): but though it has some aesthetic appeal and much to offer by way of comfort, it has no soul. The culture is a sort of religious, political and moral Flatland, levelled down or levelled up (it is all the same) by relentless think-tankery, management-consultancy, middle-management and human-resourcefulness. Whatever most of the public figures, politicians, journalists, academics and scientists (and especially any scientists who happen to appear on a screen), believe is not something they conscientiously believe: on the contrary, it is ‘ideology’ in Marx’s sense. Wokery is the ideology, the bricolage ideology, of our new massed state-and-corporate regime. And surely COVID-19 has revealed to us all that despite the beery and jolly atmospherics of Liberalism which still befog and befoam the modern British mind, there was an astounding ideological ‘mass formation’, as we now say, as everyone came to agree about the succession of dubious and dangerous protocols wheeled in by unscrupulous amateurs and even more unscrupulous professionals to deal with an innocent virus.
Marx enabled some – like Agamben (also influenced by Foucault and others) – to keep their heads. Agamben was almost the only public intellectual of any weight who came out like Jeremiah during the pandemic. So we cannot blame Marx or even Marxism for everything that is going on. Marx had a good eye for the dynamics of power, and even if his false consciousness about his own moral sympathy for the underdog led him astray, he himself, had he been alive in our time, would have asked, as Lenin did later, who was benefiting in what way from whatever all this ideological fanfare was concealing in plain sight?
It is true that most Marxists have not done well during the COVID-19 crisis. Although they are generally fond of criticising corporations, they do so from a point of view which opposes acquisitive and rapacious corporations to an ideally redistributive state. This is a distinction which was always hopeful, if not completely fictional; and in our age in which states and corporations have formed grandiose and complex alliances there is no simple way of distinguishing ‘public’ and ‘private’. Anyone who claims to be able to distinguish them is lying, or simplifying to a fault. And so most self-styled critics of capitalism have tended to be the most abject supporters of the corporations which were responsible for vaccines or which benefited from lockdowns. These critics simply switched off their suspicion of corporations for the sake of the virus. Plus, they thought that there was something beautifully anti-populist and anti-parochial about fighting a virus: just as there is in fighting climate change or fighting exploitation and expropriation. But this universal feelgoodery is not Marxism: it is just the usual thoughtless elite Liberalism. Consider how thin the critique of capitalism must be, that it could so easily collapse in the face of COVID-19.
It wouldn’t surprise me if one day the Cold War might come to be seen as a war between two equally bad systems: in which the one in the West was only infinitely slyer and subtler than the one in the East. The propaganda in the West must make the Chinese gasp in admiration at its sophistication. Be that as it may, there is certainly no point talking about ‘Cultural Marxism’. The word ‘Cultural’ empties the word ‘Marxism’ of any significance. It is likely that anyone who uses the word ‘Marxist’ is simply using it as a term of abuse, like ‘Fascist’. So be it. But be aware that you are using the term as a term of abuse. And you are obliterating any attempt to make sense.
One more thought. Bring Marx back from the grave. Would he not say that post-Christian modernity has developed an even subtler ‘opium of the masses’ than Christianity – in this godless, scientific, hypocritical, oxymoronic, ‘sustainable’ and ‘progressive’, irritable, mental-health-obssessed, aggrieved, complacent and privileged rainbow religion?
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.
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