It’s difficult to promote free speech if you’re prohibited from speaking. Case in point (from a sadly target-rich field of examples): a recent conference in London, Ontario concerned with the ongoing encroachment on free speech in academia. The keynote speaker, British academic and widely published columnist Joanna Williams, was barred from the booked venue, the London Public Library, apparently for the crime of holding and preparing to share un-woke opinions. Activists applauded the Library’s decision on the basis that it was, as they put it, “Essential to keep libraries as a safe and free space.”
Williams was able to deliver her planned presentation, entitled “Academic Freedom and the Problem of Truth,” at a nearby hotel, plus another the next day. The lively Q&A session that followed the second talk featured an interesting digression: just what is the source of today’s cancel culture and, more generally, the woke ideology that drives it? More than a mere academic question, understanding the mindset and motivations of the censors, as one participant pointed out, is part of the foundation to opposing them.
Asking this question was worthwhile for another reason, because it reconfirmed that nothing should be taken for granted, not even the most basic of assumptions. Whatever the exact combination of people, ideas and circumstances it was that led to the phenomena of wokism and cancel culture and their fearsome power at this time and stage in Western civilization, surely nobody would advance the case that they originated anywhere but on the left. And yet one conference participant put forward this very proposition: isn’t wokism merely a reflection of “late-stage capitalism”?
Late-stage what? What struck many conference participants as not only an eccentric notion but an outright non sequitur has been put forward as a plausible theory in recent comments by embattled political scientist Frances Widdowson. Widdowson (as chronicled in this C2C essay) was fired by Mount Royal University in Calgary for criticizing aspects of Indigenous learning as fundamentally irrational – and for pugnaciously defending her beliefs. She is now in a legal battle with the institution.
In a podcast discussion with a fellow academic recently posted to YouTube, Widdowson expounded upon the “late-stage capitalism” hypothesis. “People often think that wokism is a left-wing position, but I don’t think that it is,” she told host Tammy Peterson. “I think that wokism is a reactionary, anti-Enlightenment position and is intent on reordering what is considered to be the hierarchy of oppression within the capitalist system.”
There’s no reason to doubt that the combative Widdowson, fighting her own “cancellation” with noteworthy courage – earlier this year facing down a horde of foul-mouthed and at-times threatening students opposed to her giving a speech at the University of Lethbridge – is committed to academic freedom and free speech. Yet it seems that, as a self-declared Marxist, her adherence to rational materialism does not outweigh her preconceptions about conservatives and free-market economics (“capitalism”). She cannot see what is before her eyes.
This issue is acutely relevant because wokism’s destructive rampage had unwittingly encouraged conservatives and traditionalists to begin banding together with liberals and some leftists to stand up for free speech, open inquiry, overall civility and protection of the right to dissent from orthodoxy. It is a decidedly odd alliance – and a fragile one. Comments like Widdowson’s and from other leftist opponents of wokism cast doubt on the viability of a united front for tolerance and free expression.
Bad German Exports
Besides Volkswagens, Bach and Beethoven, printing presses, beer and passably good chocolate, Germany has had another major export over the last 200-odd years: innumerable ponderous academics and intellectuals. Some of them were widely influential despite their very, very bad ideas.
Take economist Werner Sombart. His 1928 three-volume doorstop, Der moderne Kapitalismus (Historisch-systematische Darstellung des gesamteuropäischen Wirtschaftslebens von seinen Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart) – try saying that five times fast – is still influential today, despite doubling as an insomnia cure. Sombart, a politically rebellious son of wealthy north-Germans, made his name as a serious Marxist of the historical school before settling into a comfortable accommodation with the Nazi regime. One main thesis of Der moderne Kapitalismus is that there are discernible “stages” of capitalism, from proto-capitalism, to early, high and, lastly, late capitalism (which ostensibly set in after the First World War).
The basic conceit of late (or “end-stage”) capitalism is that there are natural and unbreachable limits to capitalist development so that free markets must eventually confront “insurmountable” challenges. This was introduced to the English-speaking world by Ernest Mandel, a Belgian Trotskyite economist. Mandel touted the Soviet Revolutionary’s contention that Marx had evinced an “insuperable power of historical foresight,” i.e., was laying out the future. Such concepts, along with Friedrich Engels’ assertion that Marxism was “scientific,” became like intellectual drugs dulling the wits of generations of leftist scholars. The future is preordained; the other side will lose; it’s science!
It’s easy to see how such dogma is fatal to intelligent thought, including the ability to recognize unforeseen (and evidently not preordained) events and phenomena for what they are. It may, for example, help explain the reflex of leftists to ascribe everything from fast food to bad weather to the failures of capitalism – and to issue assurances that such things can’t go on forever. The origins and nature of woke culture are on an entirely different level, however. Wokism poses a mortal threat not just to “conservatives” but to rational leftist intellectual inquiry itself. Denying its leftist origins is a grave and, for “scientific” Marxists, potentially fatal error: wokism is unlikely to stop until it’s eaten them alive.
Numerous authors, most recently James Lindsay, Christopher Rufo and Andrew Doyle, convincingly trace wokism via post-modernism and critical race theory back to the wellspring of radical left thought: Marx. The conceptual, intellectual and historical origins of wokism and its connections to other elements of radical leftism and neo-Marxism have also been extensively evaluated by C2C authors in the linked essays.
Rufo argues that the movement largely stems from German-American academic Herbert Marcuse and his influence on “New Left” radicals of the 1960s. Lindsay similarly cites the Frankfurt School – of which Marcuse was a member – and demonstrates that the originators of critical race theory were steeped in Marxist-Hegelian dialectical methodology. Critical race theorists themselves conveniently acknowledge their affiliation, as when Richard Delgado described the two-dozen attendees at critical theory’s founding convention as “a bunch of Marxists.” Black Lives Matter’s co-founder publicly described herself as a “trained Marxist.” Rufo and Lindsay also point out that the “critical” in critical race theory derives directly from the earlier, more general critical theory espoused by the Frankfurters. French post-modernists and deconstructionists also played a significant role.
The circle of censorship is closed in two books by critical race theorists: Words that Wound by Mari Matsuda and Understanding Words that Wound by Delgado and Jean Stefancic. The authors argue that words can “injure,” decry the “rising tide of verbal violence” on college campuses, and advocate for “responsible regulation of hate speech.” Similarly and not coincidentally, Marcuse’s concept of “repressive tolerance” (as also discussed in this C2C essay) justifies the active censorship and de-platforming of any ideas and individuals with whom the right-thinking (i.e., those on the left) disagree.
Widdowson’s “late-stage capitalism” theory, then, requires ignoring (or being ignorant of) the facts that wokism’s philosophical basis resides entirely on the left, that nearly all its proponents and activists are identifiably (often self-identified) leftists, and that its methods, rhetoric and goals generally align with those of left-totalitarianism. But if you set aside those few details, wokism isn’t “of the left.”
In principle and out of courtesy, one shouldn’t excessively fault Widdowson and other sincere leftist supporters of free speech for holding onto their beliefs. That said, insisting that current problems with censorship and cancellation are not “of the left” is a little too close to the left’s catch-all excuse when confronted with the deadly wreckage of socialism in action: “real Marxism/Communism has never been tried.”
It’s also a reminder that Marxism is less a rigorous theory and more akin to a secular religion. It is right about everything, infallible; hence, anything that’s wrong must come from elsewhere. Wokism is wrong, so it can’t be of the left. Capitalism, on the other hand, is the primary source of evil; accordingly, wokism stems from capitalism.
On a practical level, seeing how such beliefs affect if not outright control their judgment makes one also question their future reliability in action, in the trenches of the culture war with wokism.
A Great Generation
Seventy-five years ago this summer, a fat man with bad teeth, in a rumpled suit, testified before the U.S. Congress’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine, confessed that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union and, more ominously, that extensive Soviet spy rings were penetrating the highest levels of the U.S. government. Chambers named names.
His testimony set off a firestorm that, despite the long list of Soviet operatives which ultimately came to light, centred on Chambers’ accusations against a senior State Department official, Alger Hiss. Rather than focusing on the substance of what Chambers had to say, the news media seized on the contrast between the two men: the squat and dumpy Chambers versus the refined, patrician Hiss. Elite sympathies lay with Hiss, who had recently been Secretary General of the conference which drafted the UN Charter. But the superficial narrative was dead wrong, and Hiss was convicted of perjury.
Despite the evidence, senior government officials supported Hiss. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, for example, said, “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss.” As for Hiss, he remained widely respected, even beyond the doctrinaire left, maintaining his innocence until his dying day. Even today, many on the left refuse to accept his guilt. In fact, Hiss was a traitor, guilty of treason and, as the balance of evidence suggests, an actual spy for the Soviets. Chambers’ life, by contrast, remained troubled even after his vindication.
Chambers was emblematic of a wave of ardent Communists who, confronted with the evils of the Soviet regime, renounced their beliefs and became passionate defenders of Western freedom and democracy. As the fearsome crimes became known – the planned Ukrainian famine, the Moscow show trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, Mao’s Cultural Revolution – prominent leftist intellectuals abandoned leftism and dedicated their lives to its defeat. These included journalists Malcolm Muggeridge, Norman Podhoretz, Paul Johnson and Peter Hitchens; author Arthur Koestler; philosopher Sidney Hook; and many others. Many underwent religious conversions and most contributed to the intellectual renewal of Western traditionalism and conservatism.
An Enduring Alliance or a Foreordained Falling Out?
The rise of wokism and cancel culture has inspired a new generation on the left to, if not actually join the centre-right, question their doctrinaire assumptions and become vocal critics of the conventional wisdom. Among these are comedians Dave Rubin and Andrew Doyle – author of The New Puritans – environmentalist Michael Shellenberger and even TV host and comedian Bill Maher, whose mocking of gender ideology has alienated him from the leftist establishment.
For conservatives fighting to protect free speech and social sanity, it’s heartening to have allies on “the other side.” There are reasons for caution, though, as some of the most prominent anti-woke liberals – unlike Chambers’ generation – don’t seem to recognize what part of their ideology got us here. Consequently, they may not be diagnosing the true nature of the problem or be committed to completely rolling back the wokist horde. This is unfortunate because, coming from the left, they would be solidly placed to help.
One example is liberal academic Jonathan Haidt, whose book The Righteous Mind sought to analyze and dampen political tribalism in America. A lifelong Democrat, Haidt embarked on the project in order to better understand Republicans and help his team win more elections. To his credit, he came to appreciate his opponents as actual people and advocated building “golden bridges” of understanding between the warring parties. He also helped found Heterodox Academy, a non-profit dedicated to open inquiry and free expression in academia.
More recently, however, Haidt has appeared uncomfortable with his new conservative bedfellows and can’t resist indulging his old political instincts. He has taken to calling Republicans “the stupid party” because the organization “shoots its moderates and is dangerous in many, many ways.” His assessment of the Democrats is quite different: they are not stupid. He believes that “[Democratic] moderates actually generally win. They don’t shoot their dissenters in Congress and in the party. So, it’s not a stupid party, whatever you think about their policies. It’s not structurally stupid.” While recognizing that the left’s domination of “most of our epistemic institutions…those that generate knowledge, including journalism and universities” might be a concern, he adds that, “You know, Hollywood, most of the media, NPR, for example, is almost entirely staffed by progressives, and that’s not necessarily a problem.”
Similarly, African-American linguist and New York Times columnist John McWhorter has been a pointed critic of “the woke religion.” McWhorter recently refused, however, to ascribe any ideological significance to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary changing its definition of “female.” The ideological and practical connections among neo-Marxism, post-modernism (with its deliberate epistemic confusion, e.g., what is a “woman”?), so-called “anti-racism,” intersectionality and wokism are profound, prodigiously documented and should be undeniable. But McWhorter insisted that the Merriam-Webster lexicographers “meant well.” This is either politically naïve or turning a tendentiously blind eye to what’s happening.
Accordingly, it seems prudent to point out that liberals like Haidt, McWhorter and others, while passionately opposing wokism, may not be willing to see the fight through to the end – because they refuse even to take the journey up the conceptual river from wokism back to its source. One gets the impression that, if the current excesses of censoriousness could be quashed, they’d be happy to return to the pre-woke, Left-liberal consensus. For instance, despite outward appearances, it’s hard to imagine they’d be too upset if the leftist university monoculture continued. For all that is wrong with such thinking, at minimum it seems ludicrously naïve to suppose that wokism can be tamed while letting its constituent elements carry on as before.
Which brings us back to wokism as a reflection of “late-stage capitalism.” Whether or not it is being adopted by corporations and governments – and it certainly is – wokism is from the left and of the left. These organizations may have “culturally appropriated” wokism – and are now contributing to its proliferation and metastasis – but they did not conceive or develop it. That was the intellectual work of many decades – all of it, as we saw above, on the left.
Proponents of free speech and academic freedom, particularly those on the left, should swallow their pride and take a hard look in the mirror. Are they willing to analyze the origins of cancel culture and academic censorship honestly and without judgment-clouding preconceptions, following the truth wherever it might lead? This is their mission, ostensibly, as academics and rationalists. Or are they unable under any circumstances to step out of their ideological “safe space”? A return to tolerance and social sanity will require many tools from the intellectual toolbox. Some of those, it seems, only conservatives currently know how to use.
John Weissenberger has been a lifelong student of totalitarian ideologies.
Source of main image: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.