January 20, 2023 - 3:30pm

On the face of it, any comparison between the woke Left of the 21st century and the Bolsheviks of the early Soviet Union is absurd. Whatever one might think about the ‘libs’, they’re not mass murderers. 

And yet the tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan does draw a parallel. In a fascinating Twitter thread, he compares the state of Western politics in 2023 with Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). Before investigating the usefulness of this analogy, here’s a quick overview as to what Srinivasan is alluding to: in 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power only to find themselves fighting a bitter civil war against the Whites. Though this resulted in a Red victory, the years of upheaval left the economy in ruins. Lenin’s response was the NEP, which relaxed many of the controls imposed in the wake of the Revolution. 

Suddenly, market incentives were back and, in the 1920s, a new class of entrepreneurs began to flourish — supplying food and other goods to the urban proletariat. Further, by easing up on the totalitarian megalomania, the Bolsheviks dampened political opposition to their regime. 

Of course, history tells us that the NEP was a false dawn. By 1928, with Stalin in charge, the NEP was cancelled and replaced by the forced collectivisation of the Great Break. What followed were the murderous purges and man-made famines of the 1930s. 

But what is the relevance of any of this to us? If I’m reading Srinivasan correctly, it is that we’re living through a false dawn of our own. He argues that though “the establishment” (by which he means the American Left) has “recaptured the state and captured Big Tech”, its leaders have (like Lenin) decided to ease up a bit. They have “tacked back ~30% to the center”, he reckons. 

And he’s right: compared to the ferment of 2020, some of the “heat” has gone out of the culture wars — quite literally in the case of those fiery but mostly peaceful protests. Other examples include the dismantling of Covid controls, the scrapping of the Disinformation Governance Board and the rejection of calls to defund the police.

However, Srinivasan reminds us that the woke Left — and its useful idiots — remain in charge of key institutions. Unless that changes, there’s nothing to stop a new wave of extremism in a few years’ time. We’ve seen the woke Left in its ‘Leninist’ form, but what would a ‘Stalinist’ version look like?

Srinivasan argues that “wokeism, like pre-revolution Bolshevism, is an ideology of critique”, therefore “it’s not that useful for governing”. If it is to remain in power, the 21st century Left will have to adapt. Indeed, his claim is that we’re in the “middle of a transition from wokeism to statism”. 

But I wonder if his theory of an emerging “total state” misunderstands the true nature of wokeism. Though it does indeed present itself as a critique of the status quo, its core purpose is to reproduce itself. Deep down, what wokeness really wants is not change, but more wokeness. Upon taking control of an institution, its first demand is for more resources for itself — more training sessions, more safe spaces, more trigger warnings. 

Thus the new wokeness will be like the old wokeness — only bigger. Instead of expanding the state to absorb the rest of society in true totalitarian fashion, what we’ll see is a lot more leaching off the state. Public funds will be diverted into more job creation schemes for the expensively educated, but essentially useless, products of the university system. 

This scrabble for resources will be wasteful and, at times, quite nasty — but not Stalin nasty. History will repeat itself as farce, not tragedy. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.