by Mary Harrington
Wednesday, 3
November 2021
Idea
15:00

Is Christopher Rufo a Right-wing Leninist?

A new movement emerges at the National Conservatism conference
by Mary Harrington
Christopher Rufo

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.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

At last someone is setting out a credible strategy for resisting the woke agenda (and, more remarkably, Unherd is giving column inches to summarize the strategy).
Kudos to Hawley for energizing a pushback. His ideas aren’t novel (the possibility of making US universities at least partially responsible for the education debts their students incur has been floating around for years) but he seems to have packaged them into something that might conceivably become a distinct political movement. Vivek Ramaswamy (who wrote “Woke, Inc”) also attended that conference and he has proposed legal strategies for fighting wokeness in academia and industry.
I’m encouraged by these developments and what appears to be the unexpected Republican victory in Virginia. Still, it’s early days. The US midterms will be fascinating and consequential. It will be interesting to see how blatant the big tech companies (notably Google) are in suppressing positive news about Republican candidates in the run up to the midterms. If they overstep the mark again (as they did with Trump) that might further fuel conservative anger and political engagement.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Peter Schiff always speaks of how Universities inflated their fees so massively directly with the increase in availability Gov backed Student Loans. As Gov guaranteed more money for education the corrupt Education Industrial Complex just charged more to add yet more destructive layers and features to the education systems. In the end the vast student loans have destroyed education, and a generation of university leavers with useless degrees and enough debt to keep them off the housing ladder, and stopping them from marriage and family.

Gammon said the Student Debt is the largest asset the US government carries (an asset as it is money owed to them, $1.2 TRILLION, an anti-asset in they are not going to get it back.)

Either the young are irreparably harmed by this burden, or the Gov forgives it and so slides another huge length down the slippery slope to insolvency.

Student loans – the perfect example of how the insanely partisan and stupid Swamp Government always has unintended consequences greatly exceeding the benefit, every time it meddles in anything.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

And yet many of the supposedly top unis have billions in endowments. They need to have skin in the game! If they had to cover $200K for Transgender Studies majors who are essentially unemployable, perhaps they wouldn’t crank out as many. Do the maths!

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
10 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

ALUMS have to stop donating to their universities as well. We stopped years ago – it was like flushing money down a toilet.

Last edited 10 months ago by Cathy Carron
James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Spot on, mate! VA–extremely critical–a victory and NJ still too close to call. Since it is really, really close, I suspect that a winner will not be announced for a week or more and it will be contested, and that the process will go on for months. So much for election efficiency. The result will have little legitimacy. Let’s remember that Stacey Abrams, that woke, disgusting, animal still tries to undermine the results of the GA election by claiming–falsely–that it was stolen from her. But only Trump violates established norms!
From what I read here, the strategy he advocates is correct and effective. I will have to look into this guy more.
And before we call this guy an authoritarian, let’s remember that the Bible of the left for decades has been RULES FOR RADICALS, which has largely worked. Time to fight fire with fire.
Let’s go Brandon!

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
10 months ago

Finally, someone gets it. A long march back through the institutions.

Alan B
Alan B
10 months ago

Many of us have embarked on that march already. In fact, what Rufo seems to propose is the destruction of institutions. State funded public schools would be decimated, not well-endowed private schools, much less the ivies. (Ironically, almost all of the college-haters pick on the ivies but then propose “solutions” that would leave them untouched while hollowing out the old American tradition of affordable, accessible post-secondary education.) I suspect that, over time, the tension between the projects of “marching through” the institutions vs “trampling them down,” will fracture the nascent national conservative movement (sort of like what’s happening now to the remnants of the post-1968 “New Left”). It all comes down to whether anything is worth conserving–a question that will come to the fore should this coalition ever attain actual power. And, based on Mary’s report, it’s not clear that Rufo wants to conserve anything but Boomer-era nihilism. (Admittedly I have yet to read his whole speech.)

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago

In fact the best way to defund and defang the hard left is to shrink the state and promote choice. Hence, there is a natural convergence between cultural and economic conservatism. Add to this the abolition of the quangos and bureaucracy is restored to a greater degree of neutrality, as well as being reduced in size. Meanwhile, we should make all schools independent and turn the education budget into means tested vouchers, to be topped up by private initiative. University courses should be drastically culled and vocational training boosted. Anti-trust legislation, meanwhile, could be used to break up media monopolies – an interventionist step to complement the destruction of the BBC. Moneys saved from a shrunken state should be funnelled into border forces and all international conventions which prevent the immediate deportation of illegal migrants torn to shreds. A massive programme of repeal could initiate the process, scrapping the “Human rights” act, the “Climate Change” nonsense, Orwellian “hate-crime” legislation, and so on. To be properly effective, these measures must be reinforced by a mighty purge of the judiciary. To make sure this can be enacted with minimum delay – no repeat of the Bercow Brexit fiasco – the Lords should be reduced to some fifty legislators, collectively reflecting the balance of parties in the Commons. Any MPs sitting for constituencies in devolved parts of the kingdom should, likewise, either lose their seats entirely or be denied the right to vote on English legislation – this is only fair – and be damned to Lord Salisbury’s flannel about two tier parliaments. Better that than two tiers of voter. There’s a lot to be done.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I don’t think you’ve quite got there. How exactly are you planning to shrink the state? What power do you control to do that?

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

You cover a lot of ground, mate, and I think I agree with it all. Abolish The BBC at the top of my list.
And when it comes to taxes, I become irate when I think that the government is stealing from me (I’m fine paying for roads and bridges, not for a woke, social justice agenda and foreign aid), to exponentially expand the state.
We must starve the beast! Spot on!

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago

The modern progressive left in the west is completely bonkers, but embarking on a culture war with them on these terms as proposed by these American politicians would be sinking to their level, and not something I could get on board with. You would end up fighting them using *their* nomenclature, effectively on *their* terms, and you would run the serious risk of losing – or if you win the society that results would be equally repellent and victory would be pyrrhic. This is not a good way to go.

We are approaching or living through multiple inflection points, societal, technological, civilizational, political and so on. The best way to react… is to not overreact. The various playouts are ongoing and some of them are unfightable, while others are up for negotiation.

One of the ways to fight against the current cultural insanities is through mockery – set up camp on the terminologies they use, mock their sense of victimhood, laugh mercilessly at what they consider ‘holy’ – race, gender, equity, the eggshells use of language around outrages like lone-wolf terror attacks for fear of offending some group or other, symbolisms like ‘taking the knee’ and so on, with an endless stream of jokes. Be a wide-eyed child and point out loudly all the emperors that are walking naked. There is nothing the po-faced religious dislike more than not being taken seriously, and this is the way puncture them. Make jokes in bad taste – bring back Alf Garnet – some of this has started by people accepting certain words and phrases are verboten, and this entire culture of sensitivity needs challenging. It might provoke them into violence, and then we have them. Both XR and Insulate Britain are close to tipping into this and if they do they will lose both credibility. Ditto the forray into a foul-mouthed teen by climate poster-girl Thunberg – if she continues down this route she will lose the halo and her godly role as a representative archetype.

This is all double-edged though – the same merciless laughter needs to be applied to those on all parties, all sides, for it to work.

Last edited 10 months ago by Prashant Kotak
J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Great post. I agree we shouldn’t stoop to their level of ideological silliness and faux outrage, but we must take a strong stance. For example, defunding much of the humanities is a reasonable step, imo. Those departments are producing nothing of value. Forcing the universities to take on some of the risk of student debt is also an excellent strategy, imo.
The reality is we’re in a war whether we like it or not. Your proposal of mocking the things the woke treat as sacred is a good one but it will surely be viewed by them as a full-on assault and, as you suggested, they’ll react. They’ll react to any small sign of resistance but we can’t just sit here and turn the other cheek any longer.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Quite so. Moreover, mere mockery will get us nowhere given that it will never be broadcast, performed, published or aired where the thought police can hear it. The answer now is a direct, political challenge to the left’s programme; a principled refutation of its premises and a vigorous root and branch programme of our own. To stand any chance of effectiveness, any such programme should rip up the foundations of the “woke” state. Anything else will simply blunt the marginal effects of wholesale oppression.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Yes. I agree. Mockery or humour was one of the 1st cultural phenomena the ‘woke’ attacked, for obvious reasons.
I agree with your principled refutation of its premises – I have been attempting to outline the core axiomatic assumptions of some of the various movements of the critical SJ medusa – and agree with a root and branch programme that would aim to rigorously argue for enlightenment values with special attention to the genealogy of the West with all its contradictions.
And one more thing, a push to study the rise and insane antics of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century – such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Pol Pot Cambodia to name a few.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

I suspect that Mary writes for The Economist. I am constantly gobsmacked at how little The Economist knows about the US, and how they almost always get it wildly wrong. When Lexington lives inside the Beltway, and is surrounded by woke, secure government employees who know little of real American life, I suppose it skews one’s world view. Of course Lexington talks up his trips outside the Beltway, even sometimes, venturing into the heart of America, but is still almost always wildly wrong.
Now to Mary. I’ve read this piece several times and I think we’re in The Economist territory. I think that Mary is completely wrong. It seems that Rufo is not “Marxian,” but a revolutionary bent on overthrowing tyranny. She might remember that some years back what is now the US rebelled against tyranny, so there is that rich tradition. She might also remember (or learn) that none other than Thomas Jefferson advocated for overthrowing tyranny whenever it reared its head.
Take the point on the unis having skin in the game with student loans. Many have billions of dollars in endowments, but they churn out X number of Gender studies graduates who are not educated but indoctrinated to hate America. They have no skills, critical thinking or otherwise, and are too woke to be trained. And they also owe north of $200K for this worthless degree. They won’t or can’t pay it back, and now “demand” that taxpayers fund their indoctrination.
If the unis had skin in the game, maybe they would produce fewer of these woke imbeciles. How is that Marxian?
Two final thoughts: Civil War is coming to the US–lock and load.
Let’s go Brandon!

Last edited 10 months ago by James Joyce
Paul K
Paul K
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

‘It seems that Rufo is not “Marxian,” but a revolutionary bent on overthrowing tyranny.’
Well, that’s pretty much a pure description of exactly what Marx and his followers were doing. What do you actually think the communists were up to all those years? It might be useful for you to pick up a history book too.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul K

What years are we talking about, Paul? How did communists overthrow tyranny in Russia between 1917 and 1989, for example?
Perhaps you are using “overthrow” in way with which I am unfamiliar.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
10 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Thanks for dealing with the woke child.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul K

“What do you actually think the communists were up to all those years?”
Terror, torture, famine, and mass murder.
“It might be useful for you to pick up a history book too.”
Tu quoque.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
10 months ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Hmm, doesn’t sound if this squabble is any guide the conservative (counter-) revolutionaries or whatever will get their act together any time soon! It is arguing about words, which don’t have fixed meaning especially in controversial areas, and imply one thing to one person and a different thing to another.

The idea of a vanguard party was probably originally Leninist, but its hardly worthwhile getting hung up on whether Rufo is in this sense ‘Marxian’. I wouldn’t have used it, but otherwise Harrington’s article was neutral and correct.

Last edited 10 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Not quite sure how your reply to me addresses anything I said, to be honest.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

Mary, I would love to hear the story of how you “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,”

“Rufo’s approach was his heavy borrowing from the Leninist idea of ‘vanguardism’” “Perhaps Rufo’s only lurch out of straightforwardly Marxian territory”

haha, fun angle on it all, although preposterous. I see it as more the opposite, where the lands which had been captured by the Communists and lived under their corrupt and repressive system set out to return their nations to freedom by populist movements. Like Walesa and Poland’s Solidarity movement fighting Communism by mobilization with Populism rather than Trotsky’s radicals infiltrating, or ‘Entryism’.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
10 months ago

We need to institutionalize and organize the resistance to the woke cult, before we are deprived of the resources and liberty to do so. That day can’t be far off. I will investigate Christopher Rufo immediately. We need to join up and band together.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale
G A
G A
10 months ago

His interview on the Triggernomitry podcast was great.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
10 months ago

Gramscist, surely!

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
10 months ago

Giving someone a label like ‘Right-wing Leninist’ badly restricts free thought, and maybe also free speech.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
10 months ago

If Christopher Rufo is just a right-wing Leninist then he is useless, because of Breitbart’s notion of downstreamism: politics is downstream of culture, and it is in culture that the heavy lifting has to occur.
But I say that politics is downstream of culture is downstream of religion is downstream of the meaning of “life, the universe, and everything.”
What is the meaning of “life, the universe, and everything” in the post agricultural, post-Enlightenment, post-industrial, post-mechanical age?
I say we need a post-political age, because all politics is about the Enemy, and the war to defeat the enemy, and the loot and plunder to be given out to the supporters that helped defeat the Enemy. And what does all that achieve?