Earlier this month, an article I had just published in Chronicles, “Marx Was Not Woke,” received unexpected publicity. This happened after my essay elicited a heated response from popular controversialist and blogger extraordinaire, James Lindsay. My critic described me on Twitter as a deservedly “unknown” “idiot,” who was clearly out of his depth writing about liberalism. Let me explain this complaint.
My essay was written partly in response to Yoram Hazony’s identification of wokeness with Marxism in Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Although I disagreed with this linkage, I thought Hazony made a serious argument for his side. I also agreed with his description of “liberalism” as a spent force, which is no longer a match for woke totalitarians. This may have caused Lindsay to go after me, given his assumed role as a defender of liberalism against the anti-rational Left and a presumed ally of conservative establishmentarians.
Lindsay’s remarks about me produced at last count more than 200,000 electronic responses, and most of them focused on the inappropriateness of Lindsay’s rude dismissal of my scholarly credentials. If I am “unknown” in those circles in which Lindsay moves, that is certainly not due to my ignorance of Marxism, cultural Marxism, wokeness, or Western liberalism. I have rattled people in power who prefer not to deal with me or with the controversies I’ve aroused.
But that hardly proves that I don’t know what I’m talking about as a scholar. Some of the respondents were astonished that Lindsay seemed, at least implicitly, to question my knowledge of the Frankfurt School. After all, I had been a student of Herbert Marcuse, written for Critical Theory magazines in both English and German, and even produced entire chapters of books dealing with Marxism and (what for want of a better term) is called “cultural Marxism.”
It would also have been hard to read the article that offended Lindsay without noticing that I knew something about the subject of my reflections. I also published a book with Princeton in 1999, After Liberalism, which should indicate that I know about liberalism as well as Marxism. Liberalism, let us remember, is a cause that Lindsay claims to be championing; and I certainly treat it favorably in my book. We may therefore wonder why my essay offended Lindsay so profoundly that he responded to it with implausible insults.
It seems to me that the source of my offense can be found in the last two paragraphs of my essay, in which, like Hazony, I treat liberalism as a force that is no match for woke totalitarians. But Hazony is more sympathetic than I am to those cultural progressives who presume to call themselves “liberals.” These would include Bari Weiss, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, and presumably Lindsay, all celebrities who have been “canceled” by erstwhile friends on the woke Left. This, according to Hazony, underscores how frail the liberal tradition has become in relation to its mighty collectivist enemy. And this supposedly proves Hazony’s premise that only conservative democratic nationalism can offer a collectivism that can compete with a woke rival.
My view about the authenticity of what now goes by the label “liberal” is markedly different from Hazony’s. The liberal tradition I argue has been growing ever weaker since its heyday in the 19th century, when it found a home in a bourgeois civilization based on biblical morality, a strong nuclear family, and constitutional government. Later that tradition was significantly denatured as it became identified with alien substances like Progressivism, social democracy, feminism, and finally, wokeness. I find it exceedingly hard to identify robust liberalism with the social world of Lindsay and his comrades. The so-called Intellectual Dark Web, with which Lindsay was long associated, featured mostly moderate progressives complaining about their woke associates who unfriended them.
Lindsay makes no secret about his sympathy for the woke Left, however he may label this persuasion. He claims to be strengthening that Left through his efforts to teach it rationality. His “liberal” critique of critical race theory, for example, may be little more than a charitable endeavor to bestow on the Left a methodological facelift. It is intended to protect kindred spirits against sloppy thinking that would “give power to anti-intellectual, anti-equality, illiberal currents on the right.”
Please note how Lindsay describes his moral mission in his co-authored book Cynical Theories: “Cynical Theories is born of our commitment to gender, racial, and LGBT equality and our concern that the validity and importance of these are alarmingly undermined by Social Justice approaches.” Lindsay makes the LGBT cause and feminism nothing less than integral parts of his liberal tradition.
This occasions an obvious question for those of us who understand the liberal tradition differently: Is Lindsay’s woke understanding of liberalism one that James Madison and other founders of America’s constitutional order had in mind when they established the American republic? I think not. It may therefore be better to weep over the passing of real liberalism than to pretend that Lindsay is rushing to its defense.