Progressive identity politics has become extraordinarily influential in public life. Headlines scream that Canada has committed the genocide of Indigenous peoples, that White supremacy and systemic racism block the advancement of Black people, and that opposition to the sexual transition of children denies their right to exist. Since Progressivism has become so powerful in shaping the way people perceive the world, we need to understand it better. One place to gain insight into the nature of Progressivism is in an esoteric corner of scholarship that reaches back more than 1,800 years, to a religious movement of the late Roman world – ancient Gnosticism – and looks for comparisons to modern ideologies. Let’s use the popular Progressive term “woke” as an entrée.
A Little Linguistics
The common English verb “wake” can mean “to be conscious” (intransitive) or “to make someone conscious” (transitive). The most common way of conjugating it is as an irregular verb on the old Germanic pattern of internal vowel changes: “I wake, I woke, I have woken.” The same is true of the closely related verb “awake”: “I awake, I awoke, I have awoken.” And it gets even more complicated, because “awake” can also be an adjective, as in the sentence “I am awake.”
The many varieties of Black American English often use words in non-standard ways. Thus a speaker of Black English might say “I am woke” rather than “I am awake.” There is also a history of Black entertainers using “woke” as an adjective in song and poetry to mean not just “awake” but to be conscious of something important. For example, in 1938 the blues singer Lead Belly wrote a song about the Scottsboro Boys – nine young Black men falsely accused and convicted of rape. Lead Belly said after recording the song: “I made this little song about down there [Alabama]. So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
The phrase “stay woke” remained in occasional use in the Black community, then broke through into common usage following the August 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, when a White police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an 18-year-old Black man, Michael Brown, Jr. Several inquiries, including one by then-President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice, cleared Wilson of wrongdoing, but the episode nonetheless became a symbol of police brutality toward Black people. The words, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” supposedly uttered by Brown in his final moments, went viral throughout the media. #Staywoke became a trending hashtag, and in 2016 a documentary was produced entitled, Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.
From its origins in Black protest, “stay woke” was quickly adopted in other domains of Progressive politics, appearing for example along with pussy hats in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on January 21, 2017, to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump. It now appears everywhere in Progressive identity politics, including racial and religious protest movements, feminism, gay rights and transgenderism.
Almost as quickly as “woke” became a buzzword of identity politics it was adopted as a weapon by critics. Prominent Black linguist John McWhorter’s forthcoming book, entitled Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, promises to be an important scholarly critique. Meanwhile, satire has raced ahead of scholarship. Witness the 2019 book Woke: A Guide to Social Justice, by Titania McGrath (nom de plume of Spiked columnist and comedian Andrew Doyle). “I was born woke,” writes Titania. “My wokeness is innate. It flows through me like a magical elixir, keeping my soul purged and poised for the fight.” And further: “I am a radical intersectionalist poet committed to feminism, social justice and armed peaceful protest.”
The quick appearance of criticism and the sharpness of the satire should not, however, imply political equivalence between the two sides. Wokeism is clearly on the march and in some areas appears ascendant, having permeated nearly all levels and institutions of society – including where it might be least expected, like the U.S. military. Among Western elites it has become nearly impossible not to practise or at least profess wokeness. When seen as shorthand for Progressive identity politics, woke influence on politics, policy, culture, society, and the economy has already been enormous and, from the standpoint of conservatives, libertarians, and constitutionalists, deeply disturbing.
I can’t compete with Titania McGrath in the realm of humour, but I hope I can contribute something to understanding Progressive identity politics by examining some deep historical roots. And I mean really deep – the Gnostic movement of the early Christian centuries.
Gnosticism: Ancient and Modern
Until modern archeologists discovered some ancient manuscripts, Gnosticism was known mainly from the polemics of the Church Fathers against it, such as Against Heresies (ca. AD 180) by St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon. Irenaeus and other Fathers saw Gnosticism as a Christian heresy, but modern scholars usually regard it as a tendency, movement or religion of its own, though its adherents were often intermingled with Christians and Jews.
There was no single Gnostic hierarchy, organization or doctrine. The adherents self-organized around many different teachers and colourful mythologies about the origin of the universe and the fate of humanity. There were various myths, but they contained common themes. First was that the Godhead, the Pleroma (fullness), was pure spirit and radically alien from the universe. Spiritual beings had emanated from the Pleroma, of whom an evil one, sometimes called the Demiurge, had created the universe and mankind within it. The universe was therefore hostile and chaotic, not a gift of God as in Hebrew thought or the ordered cosmos of Greek philosophy. Demons created by the Demiurge were a continual source of torment to men.
The human being was composed of body and soul (psyche), both of which were part of the evil universe. But men also contained a spirit (pneuma), which was a spark of the Pleroma. Salvation consisted of the pneuma becoming aware (“woke”) through knowledge (gnosis) of its true identity, with the goal of being reunited with the Pleroma. To the extent that there was a distinctive Gnostic sexual morality, it was either ascetic (withdrawal from the world, even to the extent of self-castration), or antinomian (flouting all rules to show that one did not belong to the world). The ethos of Gnosticism depended upon rejection of the material universe. This is opposed to Jewish and Christian theologies of redemption.
To be clear, the Gnostics were not rebellious or revolutionary vis-à-vis the political order. They had no thought of changing or replacing it. They just wanted to leave it – physically, by going to desert retreats, or spiritually, by living in their own awakened communities.
One of the first scholars to draw a connection between ancient Gnosticism and modern thought was the German-Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas. Jonas wrote his doctoral dissertation on Gnosticism in the 1920s under the direction of Martin Heidegger, generally regarded as the most influential German philosopher of the 20th century. While doing his doctoral research, Jonas regarded Heidegger’s existentialism as a key that could open all locks; but he later reversed the insight to use Gnosticism as the key to understanding Heidegger’s cryptic philosophy.
Jonas took as an example Heidegger’s concept of Geworfenheit. The word werfen in German means “to throw”; geworfen is the past participle meaning “having been thrown”; and Geworfenheit, an abstract noun with no idiomatic English equivalent, is usually translated by Heidegger specialists as “thrownness.” Heidegger used it to describe the human condition of “being thrown” into the world. In that sense, it resembles the Gnostic experience of the pneuma in a hostile and uncomprehending universe.
Despite the obscurity of Heidegger’s vocabulary, his concepts have sometimes penetrated into popular culture. The Doors’ song “Riders on the Storm,” written by Jim Morrison and his last release before he died in Paris, probably of a heroin overdose, in 1971, is an example:
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm.
Morrison is said to have learned about Geworfenheit during a lecture while a student at Florida State University in 1963.
Another example of Heidegger’s penetration into popular culture is Jerzy Kozinski’s satirical 1970 novel Being There, transformed into a 1979 movie of the same title starring the comedian Peter Sellers. “Being there” is a direct translation of Dasein, which literally means “existence” and in Heidegger’s vocabulary means something like “being in the world.” Chance the Gardener, played with studied cluelessness by Sellers, is ejected from the house where he has always lived. In an obvious riff on Nietzsche’s “death of God,” the maid says to him, “the old man is dead.” It is like a Gnostic version of the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden; Adam hasn’t sinned, he is simply thrown into the world by randomly malign occurrence.
In his 1952 book The New Science of Politics, the German-American political scientist Eric Voegelin drew extensive parallels between Gnosticism and modern ideologies such as Marxism and National Socialism. Although these ideologies were secular rather than religious, they exhibited the same alienation from the world as ancient Gnosticism. The main difference, according to Voegelin, was that they “immanentized the eschaton [end of history],” seeing the goal of human existence not as escape from the world to be reunited with a radically transcendent Other but to banish evil from a revolutionized world. That is an admittedly large difference, but the starting point may well have been the same.
Voegelin became one of the most influential political philosophers of his time. His book was reviewed in Time magazine in 1953, unusual treatment for an academic treatise. The leading conservative journalist William F. Buckley became an enthusiast, and his magazine National Review sold T-shirts saying “Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton.” (The phrase still makes an occasional appearance among American conservatives today.) There are many centres of Voegelin studies today, and the published edition of his collected works runs to 34 volumes. There are even a couple of pages devoted to Voegelin and Gnosticism in the latest book by Niall Ferguson, a sober historian of politics, business, and finance. So the connection between ancient Gnosticism and Progressivism seems well-founded.
Now we come to the main point of this essay, the application of the Gnostic lens to Progressive identity politics. It starts with the special knowledge that Progressives claim of their identity: the importance of knowing that they are Black or Indigenous or Muslim or female or gay or transgender. This gnosis is the centre of their thinking. Anyone who has ever heard one of them speak will recognize the cadence of their opening lines: “As a proud Indigenous woman…” or, “As a proud trans man…”, etc. To have one of these identities is to be oppressed by an evil world.
Their sense of oppression also ties into and possibly has amplified another recurring (though historically not universal) theme on the left: rejection of patriotism. Progressives are notorious for their contemptuous attitude toward the symbols of the political community, such as the flag and the national anthem. It makes sense that someone who considers themselves thrown into a chaotic and evil world would not feel any sense of belonging to their country, which is not “theirs” at all. Gnosticism is therefore consistent with the current phenomenon of “anywhereism”. The alien and hostile world includes the political order.
This world is not ruled by people like them, nor even primarily by identifiable evil individuals, although some leading figures do become irresistible targets – demons in their own right. Primarily, however, the evil world is ruled by abstract demons: systemic racism, White supremacy, White privilege, misogyny, homophobia, heteronormativity, transphobia, and Islamophobia. All of this becomes complicated and messy, and so it can only be understood through ornate mythologies such as critical race theory.
Our modern-day Gnostic’s identity is an irreducible and immutable essence. If one is born Black or Indigenous or female, one has certain characteristics that are like imperishable stigmata. Thus the gay liberation movement has banned use of the phrase “sexual preference” in favour of “sexual orientation,” presuming that homosexuality is an innate and immutable characteristic, not a choice that can be made or unmade.
Perhaps even more obvious is the case of transgender ideologists, who speak of a female (or male) person trapped inside a male (or female) body. They advocate allowing children to demand hormonal treatment or even surgery to begin the outward revelation of their true identity. This is eerily reminiscent of the Gnostic pneuma trapped within the human being, unlike the common-sense view of the self as involving biological maturation and experiential growth within a genetically inherited framework.
Pneuma and gnosis also appear in other branches of Progressive identity politics. Feminists celebrate “women’s ways of knowing,” and Indigenous advocates speak of their “traditional knowledge” not accessible to outsiders. Similarly, Progressives denounce science and scholarship for being White – see the recent attack on the Whiteness of astronomy for its use of the term “black holes.”
The common thread in these positions is to see knowledge not as the result of processes of study, learning, and discovery that are accessible to anyone willing to make the effort, but as the special enlightenment of an elect, what Thomas Sowell called the “vision of the anointed.” They have received insight that others cannot share or appreciate; to try is to be guilty of “cultural appropriation.” And, as Sowell memorably pointed out, Progressives also tend to see other opinions not just as different but immoral. Opinion and morality are easily conflated when you think of knowledge as resulting from “lived experience” rather than logical reasoning.
Unlike the ancient Gnostics, the contemporary devotees of identity politics share a secular worldview that does not posit salvation by escape from the universe; hence, they must hope to transform it one way or another. The more realistic identitarians realize that their own group is small and weak, and therefore incapable of doing much for itself in politics. Hence they dream of building coalitions, such as the fictive LBGTQ2 (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, Queer, Two-Spirited) community.
“Intersectionality,” a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, meant that people displaying multiple minority characteristics might be subject to special forms of discrimination (as well as accumulating multiple layers of specialness, i.e., becoming the select-within-the-select). Intersectionality has also, however, become a slogan to promote a coalition against the interlocking matrix of oppression, at the centre of which is the Demiurge – the White, straight, Christian male – who has created Western civilization, the source of evil in the world.
The dream of political coalition-building incarnates the Progressive hope of transformation, but it faces fundamental obstacles. For one thing, except for women, these soi-disant oppressed identity groups are mostly small and weak. Women are a numerical majority of society, but they are not a homogeneous group. Most women belong to families and are concerned not only about other women but about the welfare of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons as well as daughters. Thus women as an entire group will never swell the ranks of the coalition of oppressed minorities. Muslims are a huge group worldwide but are numerically few in the Western countries where identity politics has the most traction. And their religion is radically at odds with the secular ideologies espoused by feminists and gay liberationists, to say nothing of transgenderites.
All identity groups are riven with internal contradictions, if you look under the hood. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people are distinct subgroups with differing aspirations. Members of the purported but largely illusory BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) coalition are often at odds with each over all sorts of issues, such as who is most deserving of government largesse and favour. Attacks on Asians are said to be on the rise in North America, but it inconveniently turns out that Blacks are more likely than Whites to attack Asians.
Hence the “rainbow coalitions” of identity politics are typically small, weak, transient, and subject to internal division. The best way they can achieve political objectives is by playing on the guilt and sympathy of the White, patriarchal, heteronormative oppressors. They can win symbolic victories, such as iconoclastic name changes and destruction of statues, which don’t actually mean much to their oppressors, but getting hold of real power is another matter altogether. For that, they have to break up the solidity of the oppressors and form new coalitions with some elements of the previous rulers.
It is at this point that Gnostic identity politics is hoist on its own petard. Its dualistic conception of identity – oppressor vs. oppressed – does not leave room for change through persuasion, compromise and accommodation. The Gnostic/woke Progressive cannot appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” because we – the oppressors – have no better nature. Goodness is all on the side of the pneuma within the oppressed, whereas the oppressors are creatures of the Demiurge and his demons.
And indeed, if the oppressors cannot change, why would they ever cooperate with the oppressed to build a better world? Progressive identity politics will eventually shatter on its own contradictions, both conceptually and at the practical point when any other movement might have gained a shot at sharing power. That does not, however, mean the movement won’t continue, wreaking enormous havoc along the way.
Progressivism can seem to succeed for periods of time by infiltrating existing coalitions, taking advantage of well-meaning liberals who live by the 1930s Popular Front slogan, pas d’ennemi à gauche (there are no enemies on the left). But as Progressives accrue more power, their rejection of reality leads to unrealistic policies and crises that will rebound against them. We are seeing this now in the U.S. under the Biden Administration, in which Progressives are a major element. The Mexican border is almost completely open to illegal immigration, rates of violent crime in major cities are soaring, and the economy seems headed towards stagflation. For someone of this author’s age, it is reminiscent of the chaos of the Democratic-ruled 1960s that led to the election of Republican Richard Nixon in 1968, and of the 1970s, which led to the election of another Republican, Ronald Reagan.
Waking up to Wokeness
What is the practical point to discussing the parallels between Gnosticism, an ancient religious tendency, and Progressivism, a modern secular ideology? It is not a case of intellectual influence, as studied by the history of ideas. And it is not just repeating the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 1:9 that “there is nothing new under the sun.” The payoff comes in highlighting the similarity of experience underlying Gnosticism and Progressivism. Both reflect rejection and even hatred of reality, including the political order and even other human beings, coupled with self-assured superiority based on the gnosis of special insight. Comprehension of these fundamental facts is necessary in order to respond adequately to Progressivism.
Ordinary social democrats, liberals, and conservatives believe that political compromise is the key to maintaining civic peace, but they are deluding themselves if they extend this view to Progressives. Progressive demands are not made in good faith, and their compromises are only tactical. There can never be true peace between the woke and the “oppressors.” The woke demand for freedom of speech and toleration, as we are already seeing, is only a prelude to the deplatforming of those who oppose them. Take down the statue of a Confederate general today, and tomorrow they will pull down Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. In Canada, they went first after secondary figures such as Hector Langevin but are now destroying statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth II.
The ultimate political goal of Gnostic Progressivism is the destruction of the political order. Like the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, it must be met with principled and determined opposition, not well-meaning but self-destructive compromise.
Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary.