As some conservative commentators have observed, there are striking similarities between woke militants and the Bolsheviks who seized power in 1917. But what is unfolding, in the US and to a lesser extent in other countries, is at once more archaic and more futuristic than a twentieth century revolutionary coup. The current convulsion is an outbreak more closely akin to the anarchical millenarians movements that raged across Europe in the late Middle Ages, whose vision of redemption from history was shared by America’s founders, who carried it with them to the New World.
Nevertheless, Bolsheviks and woke militants do have some things in common. In late nineteenth century Russia, under the influence of their progressive parents, a generation of educated young people was convinced of the illegitimacy of the Tsarist regime. Dostoevsky’s Demons (1871) is a vivid chronicle of the tragic and farcical process by which progressive liberals discredited traditional institutions and unleashed a wave of revolutionary terror. Not only Tsarism but any form of government came to be seen as repressive. As one of Dostoevsky’s characters put it, “I got entangled in my data…Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.”
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The woke generation have learned a similar lesson from their elders, this time about the failings of American democracy. Rejecting old-fashioned liberal values as complicit in oppression and essentially fraudulent, they extend their power not by persuasion but by socially marginalising and economically ruining their critics. As in the show trials orchestrated by Lenin’s disciple Stalin and Mao’s “struggle sessions”, woke activists demand public confession and repentance from their victims. Like the communist elites, woke insurgents aim to enforce a single worldview by the pedagogic use of fear. The rejection of liberal freedoms concludes with the tyranny of the righteous mob.
Yet the impulses that animate the woke uprising are different from those that energised Lenin or even Mao. For the Bolshevik leader — an authentic disciple of the Jacobin Enlightenment, or so he always insisted — violence was a tool, not an end in itself. In woke movements such as Antifa, on the other hand, violence seems to be mainly therapeutic in its role.
One may abhor the type of society Lenin aimed to construct as much as the methods he adopted to achieve it, as I do myself. Tens of millions were enslaved in forced labour camps, executed or starved to death in pursuit of a repellent fantasy. Even so, Lenin attempted to fashion a future that in his view was an improvement on the past.
Woke activists, in contrast, have no vision of the future. In Leninist terms they are infantile leftists, acting out a revolutionary performance with no strategy or plan for what they would do in power. Yet their difference from Lenin goes deeper. Rather than aiming for a better future, woke militants seek a cathartic present. Cleansing themselves and others of sin is their goal. Amidst vast inequalities of power and wealth, the woke generation bask in the eternal sunshine of their spotless virtue.
The key scenes in the woke uprising that followed the killing of George Floyd are rituals of purification in which public officials have washed the feet of insurgents, and acts of iconoclasm in which public monuments have been destroyed or defaced. These are symbolic actions aiming to sever the present from the past, not policies designed to fashion a different future.
The only concrete measure proposed has been to defund and disband the police. As some of the insurrectionaries’ placards have proclaimed, there will be no more police violence when there are no more police. Once repressive institutions have been methodically dismantled, a peaceful anarchy will prevail. As could have been foreseen by anyone with a smattering of history, outbreaks of mass looting in Chicago and other cities have not borne out this confidence.
New, ‘transformative’ systems of law enforcement will confront problems not unlike those faced by the police forces that have been dissolved. ‘Autonomous zones’ of the kind that have been announced in Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis will need to resolve disputes and enforce their decisions. Local warlords and prophets — some of them no doubt armed — will become arbiters of public safety. When they overreach themselves and fail to protect even minimal levels of security, vigilantes and organised crime will fill the void. Where this proves costly or unstable, federal government may step in and impose order. In other cases, cities may be abandoned to become zones of anarchy.
The history of the medieval millenarians illustrates this process. They were antinomians, heretical believers who anathematised the Church and considered themselves released by divine grace from any moral restraints. While asserting their superior virtue, their signature practice was self-flagellation. Forgiveness — whether of themselves other others — was notably absent.
As Norman Cohn writes in his seminal study The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957), “in Germany and southern Europe alike flagellant groups continued to exist for more than two centuries.” Probably originating in Italy in the mid-thirteenth century, the flagellant movement reached a peak in Germany in 1348-9 when it was inflamed by the Black Death. There, as in other parts of Europe, the flagellants turned on sections of the population they accused of conjuring up the pestilence, particularly Jews, many of whose communities were wiped out.
Two hundred years later, the Anabaptist prophet Jan Bockelson seized control of the city of Munster, turning it briefly into a communist theocracy in which forcible baptisms and public executions became daily spectacles. Bockelson’s rule ended when, after a long siege, the city fell to armies acting for the Church. He was tortured to death in the town square.
For Cohn, the study of medieval millenarians was an essential part of understanding modern totalitarianism. It is also useful in understanding the woke movement. Medieval flagellants and woke militants combine a sense of their own moral infallibility with a passion for masochistic self-abasement. Medieval millenarians believed the world would be remade by God when Jesus returned after a millennium of injustice (millenarians are also known as chiliasts, chiliad being a thousand years), while the woke faithful believe divine intervention is no longer necessary: their own virtue will be sufficient. In both cases, nothing needs to be done to bring about a new world apart from destroying the old one.
There are some differences between the two movements. Mediaeval millenarians attracted much of their support from illiterate peasants and poor urban workers. The woke movement, on the other hand, is mostly composed of the offspring of middle class families schooled in institutions of higher learning. Like their medieval predecessors, woke activists believe themselves to be emancipated from established values. But, possibly uniquely in history, their antinomian rebellion emanates from an antinomian establishment.
The rise of the woke movement has not occurred as a result of a takeover of American institutions by a dictatorial government. Key American institutions have overthrown themselves, while Trump’s attempts to assert dictatorial power have so far been ineffectual. It may be that the scenes of anarchy that are part of the uprising will work in Trump’s favour in November. At least a third of the American population is opposed to woke values, a number that could increase substantially the more the uprising involves public disorder. Equally, Biden may prevail by promising a more peaceful future and find himself compelled to rein in the insurgency in order to preserve some degree of public order. Either way America will remain more or less ungovernable.
The foundational crimes of the American regime — black slavery and the seizure of indigenous groups’ lands that followed the War of Independence—are real enough. But so, in its continuing formative influence, is the mythology from which America was born. A Lockean fusion of Protestant religiosity with an Enlightenment faith in reason was the founding American religion.
Throughout most of American history Lockean liberalism has reflected the realities of power. Locke himself helped draft constitutions for Carolina that legitimated slavery, and argued that indigenous peoples could be suppressed on the ground that they had not cleared the wilderness and made their land productive. On occasion — as in the Rooseveltian settlement that followed the Second World War and made possible the civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties — America’s divisions were partly transcended. For the most part a redemptive myth has gone hand in hand with repression. The record suggests this will continue. Icons will be smashed and antinomian passions ventilated, while social and racial antagonisms remain brutal and intractable.
More than the faux-Marxian musings of postmodern thinkers, it is the singular American faith in national redemption that drives the woke insurgency. The self-imposed inquisitorial regime in universities and newspapers — where editors and journalists, professors and students are encouraged to sniff out and report heresy so it can be exposed and exorcised — smacks of Salem more than Leningrad. Saturated with Christian theology, Locke’s Enlightenment liberalism is reverting to a more primordial version of the founding faith. America is changing, radically and irreversibly, but it is also staying the same.
America’s ungovernability is morphing into a distinctive pattern of governance, with power shifting to institutions that are dismantling their traditional structures. Universities have become seminaries of woke religion, while newspapers are turning into sermonising agitprop sheets. At the same time mass unemployment and accelerating automation are stripping workers of what remained of the bargaining power they exercised before the neoliberal era.
The system that seems to be emerging is a high-tech variation on feudalism, with wealth creation concentrated around new industries and most of the population disenfranchised and dispossessed. While this metamorphosis gathers speed, the American media are manufacturing fictional narratives of national redemption.
America is on the way to becoming a semi-failed state. Its soft power has collapsed, probably irrecoverably. Yet it does not follow that it will cease to be a globally powerful actor. In a competition with totalitarian China, an American regime that mixes authoritarian control with zones of anarchy may have a comparative advantage. Classical totalitarianism is as obsolete as classical liberalism, and American mercantilism may be more resilient and innovative than Chinese state capitalism. A ruling elite shaped by figures like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk may prove more capable of deploying new technologies than a communist emperor who has put China into a deep freeze. One of the most surreal moments during the insurrection occurred when Musk’s SpaceX, almost unnoticed, launched astronauts into space.
As the woke movement spills over into parts of Europe and the UK, it should be clear that this is no passing storm. Here, as in the US, woke militants have few, if any, definite policies. What they want is simply the end of the old order. The paroxysm we are witnessing may be remembered as a defining moment in the decline of the liberal west. Perhaps it is time to consider how to strengthen the enclaves of free thought and expression that still remain, so they have a chance of surviving in the blank and pitiless world that is being born.