Mises Wire

Wokism, Marxism and the Failures of Academic “Liberalism”

Ludwig von Mises’s 1927 book Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition is increasingly important in a time when so many conflicting ideologies march under the banner of liberalism. For example, according to the New York Times, “liberal values” include “racial equality, women’s rights, human rights and democracy.” The New York Times sees “classical liberal” as simply a label used by centrist conservatives to distinguish themselves from right-wing conservatives: “Never Trump conservatives tout their bona fides as liberals in the classical, 19th century sense of the word, in part to distinguish themselves from hard-right Trumpists.” This is the dominant understanding of liberalism among academics who describe themselves as liberal and who view “classical liberal” as synonymous with “conservative.”

Academic liberalism is an ideology constructed upon egalitarian values, in particular racial and gender equality. This is why universities in the West refer to “diversity, equality, and inclusivity” (DEI) as “our shared values”—they see egalitarian values as ideals to which “we” all aspire.

In Toward a Theory of Academic Liberalism, Fred Evans observes that “academics tend more frequently to think of themselves as politically ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ . . . The disproportionate liberalism of American academics means, in short, that they are disproportionately critical of the dominant groups and institutions of the larger society, and disproportionately favor egalitarian reform and innovation.”

The Failures of Academic “Liberalism”

Paul Gottfried has argued that wokism is best understood as an ideology that “arises out of the failure of liberalism.” His analysis is certainly true in the context of academic liberalism. Academic liberals spent decades gatekeeping acceptable liberal opinion. They long ago decreed that egalitarianism is a value that must be upheld by all reasonable people and that justice can only mean distributive justice. Academic liberals are now complaining about wokism not because they disagree with it in principle nor even because wokism departs from their liberal values, but simply because they are upset about being outflanked by their own colleagues on the Far Left. After all, wokists purport to uphold liberal values, so the only difference between liberals and wokists in this context is the degree of wokism they are prepared to endorse.

The differences between wokism and academic liberalism are differences of degree. As explained in the New York Times, wokists are progressives who see the entire West as “systemically racist” and ridden with “white supremacists,” while liberals would argue that “white supremacy” is “an extremist fringe of racists and antisemites” rather than “the inherent character of the nation.” Thus both liberals and wokists agree that white supremacy is a social problem, and they simply differ on the causes and extent of the problem.

A second example is that wokists see capitalism as inherently evil because it reflects “whiteness,” but liberals see capitalism as “something to be regulated or balanced.” They are both anticapitalist but differ in the degree of their opposition to capitalism.

To give a third example, wokists promote racial segregation for their favored minority groups through “anti-racist” schemes such as “blacks only” graduation ceremonies, while liberals promote “racial integration.” Thus, wokists and liberals differ on what is to be done to eradicate racism, but they are united in the view that something must be done to eradicate racism, that such schemes should be mandatory rather than voluntary and that the government and legal system must lead the charge.

Liberals who distance themselves from wokists want DEI schemes to be dismantled so that liberals can get back to enforcing “equal opportunities” and “a universalist ideal in which diverse people come together,” a goal that does not include any role for those who were long ago excluded from the academic citadel for the crime of opposing egalitarianism, antidiscrimination principles, and the alleged virtues of multiculturalism and diversity.

In that context, Gottfried is correct to argue that “those who complain about leftist intolerance practiced the same vice in relation to the right, until they were overtaken by greater powers on the left. They then became the fashionable mourners of a lost tolerance, the loss of which they themselves helped bring about.”

A good example would be the academic feminists who waged a decades-long war against the “patriarchy,” relentlessly demanding to be included in men-only sports and clubs and getting men fired for telling sexist jokes, only to later bemoan the woke onslaught against women-only sports and clubs that is now waged against them by woke feminists who defend gender ideology and the right of any man to declare himself a woman should he so wish.

Moreover, the solutions sought by academic liberals would merely entail reverting to the status quo ante described by Gottfried:

The liberalism that the woke left cancelled was a greatly weakened form of the liberal persuasion, the exponents of which had already ceased to argue very convincingly for open discussion. For decades, that attenuated liberalism excluded the right, except for a moderate centrist version of it that would not upset leftist gatekeepers. The parameters of allowable discussion on many issues had become more and more restricted before a late modern form of liberalism gave up the ghost entirely. By then, universities were already being ideologically controlled while both government and the media had prepared the way for this postliberal age.

Woke Marxism

Academic liberals are aghast at the suggestion that the woke disaster is in any way their own fault. They resist this notion ferociously, arguing that wokism is best understood as a form of Marxism: neo-Marxism, cultural Marxism, or race Marxism.

There are certainly many aspects of wokism that evoke socialist and Marxist ideals, and this explains why wokists are referred to as “commies” in popular discourse. In his book Socialism, Mises—following Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Scheler—described Marxist ideology as one founded on “dreams of bliss and revenge,” as Marxists dream of paradise and of vengeance against those whom they envy, their “class enemies.” In similar fashion, the wokists of our time dream of bliss and revenge against their two great enemies: “patriarchy” and “white supremacy.” The bliss of which wokists dream is that described by Thomas Sowell as “cosmic justice,” the creation of a utopia in which their historical grievances are assuaged and total equality is achieved. Their dreams of revenge evoke retribution against the groups they blame for their historical grievances and unhappy life circumstances.

In promoting their ideology, wokists notably draw upon the conceptual framework of Marxism, substituting the group identity of race and sex for Marxist class identity. They share with Marxists a collectivist worldview according to which group identity rather than individual effort determines people’s life outcomes, adopting what Gottfried describes as “a vocabulary and conceptual framework borrowed from the Marxist tradition.”

However, as Gottfried points out, the primary concerns of wokism have nothing to do with Marxism. Gottfried argues: “Marx was not in the least concerned with nonbinary oppression, raging homophobia, or the inherently evil nature of being white. This father of ‘scientific socialism’ focused on socioeconomic antagonisms expressing themselves as class conflict.”

Wokists, by contrast with Marxists, make no pretense of being concerned with science. The critical race theory literature rejects reason and rationality altogether, viewing these ideals as emanations of “whiteness,” and urging people instead to embrace “other ways of knowing.” Even when wokists do not reject science outright, they describe science as nothing more than a set of subjective beliefs. Thus, we hear, for example, that 29 percent of British scientists believe sex is not binary.

These examples illustrate why Gottfried argues that “unlike Marxism, moreover, the woke left has long ceased paying homage to science and rationality.” He adds: “Woke beliefs have no necessary connection to what is empirically provable, since from the woke perspective, Western science and empirical demonstration are tainted by white, masculine, racist prejudice.”

Liberalism in the Classical Tradition

The form of “liberalism” that has prevailed for decades in the academy is that described by Gottfried as “attenuated” liberalism. This liberalism has little to do with the liberalism of which Mises writes. The New York Times is exactly wrong to describe liberalism as necessarily egalitarian and even more wrong to assert that “liberals do not see government as the problem, but rather as a means to help the people it serves.” Liberalism in the classical tradition is the ideology of freedom, not the promotion of egalitarian ideals. Liberalism sees government as the greatest threat to human freedom, not as a way to help achieve ideological goals.

Bettina Bien Greaves observed in her 1985 preface to Liberalism that much would be lost by abandoning the word “liberal” to statists and collectivists:

In the Prefaces of both the second (1963) and third (1966) editions of his magnum opus, Human Action, Mises wrote that the advocates of the freedom philosophy should reclaim “the term ‘liberal’ . . . because there is simply no other term available to signify the great political and intellectual movement” that ushered in modern civilization by fostering the free market economy, limited government and individual freedom.

Greaves noted that Mises had changed the title to Liberalism to avoid confusion: “He called the English version The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth. By the following year, however, Mises had decided that the advocates of freedom and free markets should not relinquish ‘liberalism’ to the philosophical socialists.”

Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether there is much to be gained now by bemoaning the decades-long corruption of the term “liberalism.” Abandoning the term “liberals” to statists differs from Mises’s opinion, expressed in a time when there was a chance to save the term, but we can appeal to another Misesian point in support of our view. While Mises argued against relinquishing the term “liberal” to the statists who have corrupted it, he did not regard quarreling over terminology as a valuable exercise. In Socialism, discussing the contestation over what is properly defined as socialism, he comments:

But why quarrel over the wording of it! If anyone likes to call a social ideal which retains private ownership in the means of production socialistic, why, let him! A man may call a cat a dog and the sun the moon if it pleases him. But such a reversal of the usual terminology, which everyone understands, does no good and only creates misunderstandings.

There are certainly many misunderstandings surrounding the terminology used to describe political movements. Some self-styled libertarians, for example, are sworn enemies of each other for political and ideological reasons. Socialists too are notorious for dismissing criticisms of their failed schemes by saying the schemes were “not true socialism.” From communists, we often hear that “real communism has never been tried.” Moreover, socialists regularly revise the definitions and labels of their schemes to suit the prevailing winds. As Mises observes, “The socialist movement takes great pains to circulate frequently new labels for its ideally constructed state. Each worn-out label is preplaced by another which raises hopes of an ultimate solution of the insoluble basic problem of socialism—until it becomes obvious that nothing has been changed but the name.”

Nor is there anything that can be done to prevent socialists calling themselves “liberals,” as hapless academic egalitarians insist that they are really the only true “liberals” in a desperate bid to distance themselves from the havoc wreaked by woke fellow travelers.

Rather than debating terminology, the better approach is to revisit the tenets of Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition—to defend property rights, free markets, limited government, and individual freedom, and to stand with the allies of these values by whatever label it is called.

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