by Mary Harrington
Wednesday, 3
November 2021

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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!

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