Rethinking the left

Unifying the divided

We are threatened by a creeping movement towards global fascism. But more scarily, argues cultural commentator and moral philosopher, Professor Susan Neiman, fascism is unified and the left is not. A small but growing faction of the left - the woke left - abandoned enlightenment ideals and replaced them with an untenable set of principles. In this article based on her new book, ‘Left is not woke’, Neiman lays out where the left is, how it got here and how it can reembrace universal justice to unify and fight the evils of this world.

Susan Neiman will be delivering a solo talk on ‘Left is not woke’ at the upcoming Howthelightgetsin Festival September 23rd/24th 2023.


Let us mince no words: we are threatened by an international movement towards fascism. The solidarity between far-right nationalists suggests that their beliefs are only marginally based on the idea that Hungarians/Norwegians/Jews/Germans/AngloSaxons/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. It’s a bitter piece of irony that today’s tribalists today find it easier to make common cause than those whose commitments stem from universalism, whether they recognize it or not. 

Whether in India or Israel, Russia or many parts of the United States, this tribalism is usually coupled with a rejection of the distinction between power and justice. The combination is usually called anti-democratic or authoritarian. But when journalists are threatened or murdered, independent justice systems are unravelled, pogroms against minorities supported by governments, ‘authoritarian’ is too easy a word. Those who wait to use the word ‘fascism’ until every democratic institution is suppressed will be too late to do anything about it. [1][1]


Ideas of universalism, justice and progress are anathema to thinkers such as Michel Foucault, the most-cited philosopher in postcolonial studies, or Carl Schmitt.


If that is the case, whyever should someone who has always stood on the left criticise other leftists?  Shouldn’t we turn all our attention to the dangers on the right? My book Left is not Woke argues that we cannot effectively oppose the right-wing lurch without a return to those principles which are crucial for any progressive standpoint: the commitment to universalism over tribalism, the belief in a principled distinction between justice and power, and the conviction that progress, while never inevitable, is possible. Those ideas, stemming from the much-maligned Enlightenment, are traditional both to liberals and leftists, but they have been increasingly thrown overboard by those now described as the “woke left”, “radical left” or “hard left”. 

What’s confusing about the woke movement is that it’s fuelled by all the emotions traditional to the left:  empathy for the marginalized, 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 that ultimately undermine them.  We rarely notice the assumptions now embedded in the culture, for they’re usually expressed as self-evident truths. You can find them every day in any mainstream newspaper in most parts of the world. 

Though those who repeat them may never have read the theoretical sources from which they’re derived, the sources are often downright reactionary, or nihilist at best. Ideas of universalism, justice and progress are anathema to thinkers such as Michel Foucault, the most-cited philosopher in postcolonial studies, or Carl Schmitt. Both rejected the idea of universal humanity and the distinction between power and justice, along with a deep scepticism towards any idea of progress. What makes them interesting to progressive thinkers today is their commitment to unmasking liberal hypocrisies. Schmitt was particularly scorching about British imperialism, and American commitment to the Monroe Doctrine; both, he argued, used pieties about humanity and civilisation to disguise naked piracy. But his critique was hardly in the service of decolonization; he wrote those critiques when the Third Reich he loyally served was at war with Britain and America. This hasn’t prevented him from being lionized by many who consider themselves progressive, for it’s well-known that Schmitt - as well as Heidegger, another thinker cherished by today’s post colonialists - not only served the Nazis but defended doing so long after the war. Outrage, today, is reserved for racist passages of 18th century philosophy. 


Woke activists fail to see the ways in which their theoretical assumptions subvert their own goals.


Woke activists fail to see the ways in which their theoretical assumptions subvert their own goals. Without universalism there is no argument against racism, merely a bunch of tribes jockeying for power. And that’s what political history comes to, there is no way to maintain a robust idea of justice, let alone coherently strive for progress.

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Can woke be defined? It begins with concern for marginalized persons, and ends by reducing each to the prism of her marginalisation. The idea of intersectionality might have emphasized the ways in which all of us have more than one identity. Instead it led to focus on those parts of identities which are most marginalized, and multiplies them into a forest of trauma.

Woke emphasizes the ways in which particular groups have been denied justice, and seeks to rectify and repair the damage. In the focus on inequalities of power, the concept of justice is often left by the wayside.

Woke demands that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories. In the process it often concludes that all history is criminal.

Which do you find more essential: the accidents we are born with, or the principles we consider and uphold? Traditionally it was the right that focused on the first, the left that emphasized the second.  That tradition has been turned around. It’s not surprising that theories held by the woke undermine their empathetic emotions and emancipatory intentions. 


It’s now an article of faith that universalism, like other Enlightenment ideas, is a sham that was invented to disguise Eurocentric views that supported colonialism.


Whatever your take on the relations between theory and practice in these cases, it’s more than puzzling to see the fascination for studying Schmitt by those who are concerned with colonialism, or to hear philosophers concerned with labour rights speak of reading Heidegger against Heidegger. In fact, many of the theoretical assumptions which support the most admirable impulses of the woke come from the intellectual movement they most despise. The best tenets of woke, like the insistence on viewing the world from more than one geographical perspective, come straight from the Enlightenment.  Contemporary rejections of the Enlightenment usually go hand in hand without much knowledge of it.

It’s now an article of faith that universalism, like other Enlightenment ideas, is a sham that was invented to disguise Eurocentric views that supported colonialism. When I first heard such claims some fifteen years ago, I thought they were so flimsy they’d soon disappear. For the 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.

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My predictions were wrong: in the last few years the Enlightenment has been held responsible for most of our misery, just as a century ago, the source for contemporary suffering was called modernity.  Enlightenment-bashing may have begun in American universities, but its reach has swept through the culture in much of the Western world. Those progressives who believe they must prove their bona fides by denouncing Enlightenment do not know that they are in fact defending a reactionary tradition that began in opposition to the ideals Enlightenment thinkers upheld – often in the face of threats of imprisonment, exile or death. Racism, colonialism and ultimately fascism can only be opposed with the principles that were born with the Enlightenment. To understand that, we need to understand what the left really is.

This is a task that should have been undertaken internationally after the collapse of state socialism in 1991, but the left was in a state of shock. People who spent years debating what kind of socialism they subscribed too suddenly declared that they always knew it led straight to the gulag. Rather than asking hard questions about what went wrong, too many were willing to concede to neoliberalist claims about the end of history. Those who weren’t ready to give up on progressive politics entirely turned inward.   Abandoning any grand project committed to universal justice meant focusing on alleviating discrete forms of injustice. That’s always better than doing nothing about injustice, but in a world that is on the brink we need to struggle for more.

In Left is not Woke I have offered several principles which are fundamental to any liberal or left political theory and practice. It’s my hope that this will contribute to a discussion which is even more urgent than it was thirty years ago.


[1] [1] I owe this formulation to the historian Benjamin Zachariah.

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