November 3, 2021 - 3:00pm

Many watchers of American conservative politics have had their eye on Sen. Josh Hawley at the National Conservatism conference. 

His speech at the opening dinner was eye-catching, energetic, aimed directly at the lib-fem Left (The Guardian is predictably miffed) and upbeat in its tone and the picture it painted, of industry re-shored, masculine pride re-gained and families re-founded. Whether it’s achievable is another question, but there’s no disputing that Hawley has found a tune that resonates.  

Far from seeming in any way disgraced after his response to the Capitol riot, there was a general sense that it’s only a matter of time before Hawley has a run at the presidency. But to my eye one of the more interesting keynotes came the following morning, delivered by dapper activist Chris Rufo, on his campaign against ‘critical race theory’ in American schools. 

Unlike those speakers who merely pointed at cultural changes they dislike and said ‘cultural Marxism’ repeatedly, Rufo focused on outlining ‘a proportionate, effective strategy for resisting it’: 

The Reagan-era playbook is not enough; reform around the edges is not enough; a corporate tax cut is not enough. We must take the conditions of cultural revolution as our baseline, as the current reality, and our response must be framed in terms of a counterrevolution that plays not primarily on the axis of economy, but on the axis of culture.
- Christopher Rufo

In his view, the aim should be ‘to protect the American people against a hostile, nihilistic elite that is seeking to impose their values onto the working and middle classes’. And resistance means mobilising ‘a populist majority in a revolt against the elites’.

Perhaps Rufo’s only lurch out of straightforwardly Marxian territory into a more familiar American free-market kind was his argument that parents should have ‘a fundamental right to exit the public school system’ and ‘take their education dollars with them’. Otherwise, (though he doesn’t use the language) the striking feature of Rufo’s approach was his heavy borrowing from the Leninist idea of ‘vanguardism’: the idea that an elite whose consciousness has already attained greater revolutionary heights should lead and mobilise the masses in transforming the world for the better.

Rufo characterised the role of elite conservatives like him, as ‘providing intellectual guidance, a new vocabulary of subversion, and a narrative that can direct the emotions and energy of the public against the right targets’. 

He outlined how he approached this in his own campaign: first exposing CRT through investigation, providing new language to capture phenomena people dislike but can’t put words to; then riding the ensuing wave of popular outrage all the way to new legislation. Perhaps the closest analogue in the UK is the work done by gender-critical feminists, many of whom come from academia or trade union organising, in mobilising the campaign against changes to the Gender Recognition Act.

Strikingly, Rufo’s analysis of how power actually works focused mainly on areas other than electoral politics, as did his proposals. He described the ‘cultural revolution’ he opposes as ‘a creature of the state, totally subsidised by the public’: incubated in universities, propagated by schools and state institutions. 

In his view, ‘counterrevolution’ meant aiming for a ‘defund the left’ strategy to kneecap this programme. Just changing elected politicians would not, he argued, be enough: instead he called for activists to ‘cripple the critical ideologies within the federal agencies through executive order, strangle new identity programmes in red tape, and disrupt financing for such programmes.’ 

Universities, meanwhile, should experience ‘indirect financial pressure’ including the remarkably Marxian proposal to ‘accelerate the student loan Ponzi scheme’ and ‘make universities partially responsible for defaults’. 

Rufo’s campaign has been surprisingly effective to date, with his ‘vanguardism’ triggering a rash of hostile articles describing him as the man who ‘single-handedly invented the moral panic over critical race theory’. Be that as it may, I was sat next to him at dinner last night, and the whole room erupted when the news came in that Youngkin had won Virginia. Everyone credited Rufo for it, and I think it’s probably true.

But if he’s right about how institutional power works, then such critiques are more compliments on his efficacy than effective criticisms of his stance. It’s just possible that we’re seeing the beginnings of a new right-wing Leninism.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.