The Fatal Tension at the Heart of Wokeism

8 minute read
Neiman is an American philosopher, author, and the director of the Einstein Forum in Germany. Born in Atlanta, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Free University of Berlin. She is the author of Left in Not Woke (Polity Books, March 2023). Her previous works, translated into many languages, include Slow Fire, The Unity of Reason, Moral Clarity, Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.

The more often the word “woke” is invoked, the more elusive it seems to become. Since the right began to use it as a war cry, many progressives have argued that the word is empty, merely a way to attack people of color, feminists, and members of LGBTQ communities without being directly offensive. Yet the fact that “woke” has become a slur in the hands of people like Ron DeSantis, Marjorie Taylor Green, and right-wing politicians across Europe should not prevent the rest of us from examining it. Even when they decline to say it publicly, for fear of giving aid and comfort to the radical right, most progressives I know are deeply uneasy about the turn taken in Western cultural politics of the last few years.

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Whether you think woke is a curse or a blessing, you’re likely to share one assumption: woke is left, or far-left, or hard-left. What makes woke positions hard to define is that they’re fueled by all the emotions traditional to most progressive views: sympathy for the marginalised, indignation at the plight of the oppressed, determination that historical wrongs must be righted. Those emotions, however, are derailed by a host of assumptions that ultimately undermine them. We rarely notice the assumptions now embedded in popular culture, for they are usually expressed as self-evident truths.

Even those who never read a word of Michel Foucault or Carl Schmitt, godfathers of many woke intellectuals, have imbibed conclusions from their views: justice is a concept invented to disguise claims to power; there is no common humanity; tribal connections and genetic interests determine our actions; most attempts at progress turn out to be subtler forms of domination, like the use of reason itself.

It’s the mismatch between progressive emotions and reactionary assumptions that makes woke so hard to define. The idea of intersectionality might have emphasized the ways in which all of us have more than one identity. Instead of examining the wealth of identities all of us have, the intersectionality discussions often reduce all our identities to two. Race and gender are not only the most marginalized identities, but they are also those over which we have the least agency.

Woke emphasizes the ways in which particular groups have been denied justice, and seeks to repair the damage. In the focus on inequalities of power, the concept of justice is often left by the wayside. For ideas of justice, as Foucault and his heirs argued, are often used as smokescreens to disguise demands for power. Why not be honest, cut out the middleman and simply demand power for your tribe? Woke demands that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories. In the process it often concludes that all history is criminal. Yet if we cannot acknowledge that progress has been made in history, we are unlikely to believe it can be made in the future.

Read More: Why Woke Is a Convenient Republican Dog Whistle

Defining “woke,” then, requires us to acknowledge the split between progressive emotions and reactionary theories. It’s not surprising that woke intentions are at odds with their assumptions when many of the latter come from thinkers who were outright Nazis. You need not have read a word of Carl Schmitt or Martin Heidegger to have imbibed their views: liberal ideas of justice and democracy are empty, outdated husks of the Enlightenment, itself a scam by European powers bent on imposing their values and regimes on others.

In fact the best tendencies of the woke, like the suggestion that one view the world from more than one geographical standpoint, come from the intellectual movement they most despise: the Enlightenment, which invented the critique of Eurocentrism and was 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’re echoing a tradition that goes back to Enlightenment thinkers, who risked their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives, to defend those ideas.

This is not merely a historical argument, for in misunderstanding progressive history, many contemporary voices 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.

What distinguishes the left from the liberal is the view that, along with political rights that guarantee freedoms to speak, worship, travel and vote as we choose, we also have claims to social rights which undergird the real exercise of political rights. Liberal writers call them benefits, entitlements, or safety nets. All these terms make things like fair labor practices, education, healthcare and housing appear as matters of charity rather than justice. But social rights are codified in the United Nation’s 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” While most member states ratified it, no state has yet created a society which assures those rights. To stand on the left is to insist that those aspirations are not utopian.

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, you will have no qualms about doing the same. The right may be more dangerous, but today’s left has deprived itself of ideas we need if we hope to resist turn towards the right.

The international right is extremely well organized. What unites far-right nationalists across the globe is not the idea that Anglo-Saxons or Hindus or Jews or Hungarians are the best of all possible tribes, but 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 tribalists today find it easier to make common cause than those whose commitments stem from universalism, whether they recognize it or not.

The concept of universalism once defined the left; international solidarity was its watchword. What united striking miners and civil rights workers and freedom fighters 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 that they determine us is false.

Hannah Arendt thought that Adolf Eichmann should have been not have been tried for crimes against the Jewish people but for crimes against humanity. Her distinction is even more important today. I support Black Lives Matter because the killing of unarmed people is a crime against humanity. At the same time, I reject the white countermovement whose members shout “All lives matter,” because it uses a banal general truth to distract attention from an important empirical truth, namely, that African Americans are more likely to be subject to police violence than other Americans. It’s an empirical fact, but you need a concept of truth to see it.

Despite the universalist character of the 2020 movement in the first months after George Floyd’s murder, a racist right was quick to dismiss it as a case of identity politics, though a majority of American demonstrators in June 2020 were white. It wasn’t only the right that moved towards tribal rhetoric. By the fall of that year few voices defending Black Lives Matter were universalist, though some allowed that white allies could play a role.

But I am not an ally. Convictions play a minor role in alliances, which is why they are often short. Alliances have little to do with principles: if my self-interest happens to align with yours, for a moment, we could form an alliance. The United States and the Soviet Union were allies until the Nazi regime was defeated. When the U.S. decided its interests lay in recruiting former Nazis to defeat communism, the Soviet Union turned from ally to enemy. To divide members of a movement into allies and others undermines the bases of deep solidarity and destroys what standing left means.

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

We cannot afford a similar mistake today.

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