The true Left is not woke

Neiman, Susan
Date Written:  2023-03-18
Publisher:  Unherd
Year Published:  2023
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX24854

Progressive activists have forgotten their roots.



The woke discourse today is confusing because it appeals to emotions traditional to the Left: empathy for the marginalised, indignation at the plight of the oppressed, determination that historical wrongs can be righted. Those emotions, however, are derailed by a range of theoretical assumptions -- usually expressed as self-evident truths -- that ultimately undermine them.


What concerns me most here are the ways in which contemporary voices considered to be progressive have abandoned the philosophical ideas that are central to any liberal or Left-wing standpoint: a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress. All these ideas are connected. The Right may be more dangerous, but today’s Left has deprived itself of ideas we need if we hope to resist the lurch to the Right.

This Rightwards lurch is international and organised. The solidarity between them suggests that nationalist beliefs are only marginally based on the idea that Hungarians/Norwegians/Jews/Germans/Anglo-Saxons/Hindus are the best of all possible tribes. What unites them is the principle of tribalism itself: you will only truly connect with those who belong to your tribe, and you need have no deep commitments to anyone else.


To say that histories and geographies affect us is trivial. To say they determine us is false.


Frantz Fanon, whose Black Skin, White Masks proclaims: "I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanised my ancestors."


It is now an article of faith that universalism, like other Enlightenment ideas, is a sham that was designed to disguise Eurocentric views which supported colonialism. These claims are not simply ungrounded: they turn the Enlightenment upside down. Enlightenment thinkers invented the critique of Eurocentrism and were the first to attack colonialism -- on the basis of universalist ideas. When contemporary postcolonial theorists rightly insist that we learn to view the world from the perspective of non-Europeans, they are echoing a tradition that goes back to 18th-century thinkers, who risked their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives, to defend those ideas.

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