Without universalism there is no argument against racism (KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

March 18, 2023   8 mins

It is 85 years since the great bluesman Lead Belly coined the phrase “stay woke” in “Scottsboro Boys”, a song dedicated to nine black teenagers whose execution for rapes they never committed was only prevented by years of international protests and the American Communist Party. Staying alive to injustice — what could be wrong with that? Apparently, quite a lot. In a few short decades, woke was transformed from a term of praise to a term of abuse. Still, the fact that politicians ranging from Ron DeSantis to Rishi Sunak deploy “woke” as a battle cry should not prevent us from examining its assumptions. For not only liberals, but many Leftists and socialists like me are increasingly uneasy with the form it has taken.

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.

Take a sentence the New York Times printed shortly after Biden’s election: “Despite Vice President Kamala D. Harris’s Indian roots, the Biden administration may prove less forgiving over Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.” If you read that quickly, you may miss the theoretical assumption: political views are determined by ethnic backgrounds. If you know nothing about contemporary India, you may miss the fact that the fiercest critics of Modi’s violent nationalism are themselves Indian.

Now, the New York Times is neither unique nor particularly leftist, but it does set standards for progressive discourse in more than one country. 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.


It’s a bitter piece of irony that today’s Right-wing tribalists today find it easier to make common cause than those on the Left whose commitments traditionally stemmed from universalism, whether they recognise it or not. Woke discourse is confusing because so many of its goals are indeed shared by progressives everywhere. The idea of intersectionality might have emphasised the ways in which all of us have more than one identity. Instead, it led to a focus on those parts of identities which are most marginalised, and multiplied them into a forest of trauma.

Wokeness emphasises the ways in which particular groups have been denied justice, and seeks to rectify and repair the damage. But in the focus on inequalities of power, the concept of justice is often left by the wayside. Wokeness demands that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories. But in the process, it often concludes that all history is criminal.

The concept of universalism once defined the Left; international solidarity was its watchword. This was just what distinguished it from the Right, which recognised no deep connections, and few real obligations, to anyone outside its own circle. The Left demanded that the circle encompass the globe. This was what standing Left meant: to care about striking coal miners in Wales, or Republican volunteers in Spain, or freedom fighters in South Africa. What united was not blood but conviction — first and foremost the conviction that behind all the differences of time and space which separate us, human beings are deeply connected in a wealth of ways. To say that histories and geographies affect us is trivial. To say they determine us is false.

The opposite of universalism is often called “identitarianism”, but the word is misleading, for it suggests that our identities can be reduced to, at most, two dimensions. In fact, all of us have many. As Kwame Anthony Appiah reminds us: “Until the middle of the 20th century, no one who was asked about a person’s identity would have mentioned race, sex, class, nationality, region or religion.”

The reduction of the multiple identities we all possess to race and gender isn’t about physical appearance. It’s a focus on those dimensions which experienced the most generalisable trauma. This embodies a major shift that began in the mid-20th century: the subject of history was no longer the hero but the victim. The impulse to shift our focus to the victims of history began as an act of justice. History was told by the victors, while the victims’ voices went unheard. To turn the tables and insist that the victims’ stories enter the narrative was just a part of righting old wrongs. The movement to recognise the victims of slaughter and slavery began with the best of intentions. It recognised that might and right often fail to coincide, that very bad things happen to all sorts of people, and that even when we cannot change that we are bound to record it. Yet something went wrong when we rewrote the place of the victim; the impulse that began in generosity turned downright perverse.

The limiting case of this trend is the story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, the Swiss man whose claims to have spent his childhood in a concentration camp turned out to be invented. Wilkomirski was hardly alone. In the two decades since, there has been a rash of contemporaries inventing worse histories than they experienced — a trend which runs counter to some of the heroes of postcolonial thinking, such as Frantz Fanon, whose Black Skin, White Masks proclaims: “I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanised my ancestors.”

Identity politics not only contract the multiple components of our identities to one: they essentialise that component over which we have the least control. I prefer the word “tribalism”, an idea which is as old as the Hebrew Bible. Tribalism is a description of the civil breakdown that occurs when people, of whatever kind, see the fundamental human difference as that between our kind and everyone else.

Universalism is now under fire on the Left because it is conflated with fake universalism: the attempt to impose certain cultures on others in the name of an abstract humanity that turns out to reflect just a dominant culture’s time, place, and interests. This happens daily in the name of corporate globalism. But let’s consider what a feat it was to make that original abstraction to humanity. Earlier assumptions were inherently particular, as earlier ideas of law were religious. The idea that one law should apply to Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, lords and peasants, simply in virtue of their common humanity is a relatively recent achievement which now shapes our assumptions so thoroughly we fail to recognise it as an achievement at all.

Let’s also consider the opposite: the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who wrote that “whoever says the word ‘humanity’ wants to deceive you”. Instead we might say: “whoever says ‘humanity’ is making a normative claim.” To recognise someone as human is to acknowledge a dignity in them that should be honoured. It also implies that this recognition is an achievement: to see humanity in all the weird and beautiful ways it appears is a feat that demands you go beyond appearances.

Which do you find more essential: the accidents we are born with, or the principles we consider and uphold? Traditionally, it was the Right who focused on the first, and the Left who emphasised the second. This tradition has been inverted. It’s not surprising, then, that theories held by the woke undermine their empathetic emotions and emancipatory intentions. Those theories not only have strong reactionary roots; some of their authors were outright Nazis. Ideas influenced by Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger and their epigones take up plenty of room on the progressive syllabus. The fact that both men not only served the Nazis but defended doing so long after the war is old news. Outrage, today, is reserved for racist passages of 18th-century philosophy.

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, such as the insistence on viewing the world from more than one geographical perspective, come straight from the Enlightenment. Contemporary rejections of this period usually go hand in hand with not much knowledge of it. But you can’t hope to make progress by sawing at the branch you don’t know you are sitting on.

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.

This is not merely a historical matter: we need Enlightenment ideas if we have any hope of moving forward against what are politely called the authoritarian tendencies of the present. But there is no time for politeness when many elected leaders around the world are openly undermining democracy.

My book Left is not Woke sketches the theoretical underpinnings of much woke discourse, and argues for a return to those Enlightenment ideas 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. Such ideas 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 Land and Sea, his book expanding these views, was published when Germany was at war with Britain and America. It’s an old Nazi trope. Schmitt wasn’t wrong that universalist claims of justice meant to restrain simple assertions of power have been abused for centuries. He concluded that unvarnished power grabs like those of the Nazis were not only legal but legitimate. You may think that’s the best we can do. Or you may go to work to narrow the gap between ideals of justice and realities of power.

As for Michel Foucault, his style was transgressive, but his vision was gloomier than any traditional conservative. You think we make progress towards practices that are kinder, more liberating, more respectful of human dignity — all goals of the Left? Look at the history of an institution or two. What seemed to be steps towards progress turn out to be more sinister forms of repression. All of them are ways in which the state extends its domination over our lives. Once you’ve seen how every step forward becomes a more subtle and powerful step towards total subjection, you’re likely to conclude that progress is illusory.

Woke activists fail to see that both these theories subvert their own goals. Without universalism there is no argument against racism, merely a bunch of tribes jockeying for power. Any by the fall of 2020 few voices defending Black Lives Matter, of whom I was initially one, were universalist. If that’s what political history comes to, there is no way to maintain a robust idea of justice, let alone coherently strive for progress.

Enlightenment thinkers, meanwhile, proclaimed that progress is (just barely) possible; their passionate engagement with the evils of their day precludes any belief that progress is assured. Still, they never stopped working towards it. As Kant argued, we cannot act morally without hope. To be clear: hope is not optimism. Hope makes no forecasts at all. Optimism is a refusal to face facts. Hope aims to change them. When the world is really in peril, optimism is obscene. Yet one thing can be predicted with absolute certainty: if we succumb to the seduction of pessimism, the world as we know it is lost.

You need not study philosophical debates about the relations between theory and practice to know at least this: what you think is possible determines the framework in which you act. If you think it’s impossible to distinguish truth from narrative, you won’t bother to try. If you think it’s impossible to act on anything other than self-interest, whether genetic, individual or tribal, you will have no qualms about doing the same.

It is often recalled that the Nazis came to power through democratic elections, but they never won a majority until they had already grasped power. Had the Left-wing parties been willing to form a united front, as thinkers from Einstein to Trotsky urged, the world could have been spared its worst war. The differences dividing the parties were real; blood had even been spilled. But though the Stalinist Communist Party couldn’t see it, those differences paled next to the difference between universal Leftist movements and the tribal visions of fascism.

We cannot afford a similar mistake.

Susan Neiman is an American philosopher and writer. She is the author of many books, including Evil in Modern Thought (2002) and, most recently, Left Is Not Woke (2023).