What is the relationship between wokeism, Marxism, and liberalism?

Right-wingers often characterize wokeism as a kind of Marxism, and left-wingers routinely dismiss the characterization as a cheap smear that reflects ignorance of Marxist theory.  Who is right?

(Image: Clay Banks/Unsplash.com)

In his book Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Yoram Hazony argues that there is indeed a significant link between wokeism and Marxism.  Paul Gottfried responds at Chronicles, arguing that the similarities between the two have been overstated.  Let’s take a look at their arguments.

It is important to emphasize at the outset that the question isn’t whether there are significant differences between wokeism on the one hand, and the ideas of Marx himself and the key Marxist thinkers who came after him on the other.  No one denies that there are.  The question is rather whether wokeism is best thought of as a species of Marxism, or at least whether the similarities are significant enough that the comparison with Marxism illuminates rather than obfuscates.

Here it is crucial to understand the relationship of both movements to liberalism.  The broad liberal tradition from Locke to Mill to Rawls is individualist, emphasizing as it does the rights and liberties of individuals, their basic equality, and their consent to being governed as a precondition of government’s legitimacy.  Hazony notes that the Marxist critique of liberalism emphasizes the inadequacy of this individualism to make sense of real political life.  For Marxism, liberalism is blind to human beings’ tendency to form social classes, and to the inherent tendency of one class to oppress another and to utilize the state for this purpose.

Wokeism, Hazony points out, takes over this central Marxist theme and simply replaces economic status with race, sex, sexual orientation, and the like as the keys to demarcating oppressed and oppressing classes.  Where the traditional Marxist focuses on the conflict between capitalists and the proletariat, the wokester speaks instead of “white supremacy” versus people of color, “patriarchy” versus women, “heteronormativity” versus LGBTQ, and so on.  But the emphasis on group identity rather than individualism carries over from Marxism and marks a break with liberalism.  Furthermore, Hazony points out, wokeism’s disdain for norms of rational discourse and inclination to cancel and censor opponents rather than engage their arguments differs from the liberal tradition’s idealization of free debate.

Gottfried acknowledges that all of this is true enough as far as it goes.  He also acknowledges that there is in the history of Marxism a precedent for wokeism’s turn to obsessing over race and sex rather than economic class – namely the “Critical Theory” of the Frankfurt School, as represented especially by the work of Herbert Marcuse.  All the same, he judges that Hazony and others overstate the connection between wokeism and Marxism, and fail to appreciate wokeism’s connection to liberalism.

For one thing, in the twentieth century, liberalism began to soften its individualism, with universal suffrage and the welfare state marking a turn in a strongly egalitarian direction.  In recent decades, and before wokeness took center stage, mainstream liberals had also already themselves become more intolerant of dissent and unwilling rationally to engage the arguments of their critics.  Though many liberals now complain of woke intolerance, the wokesters simply walked through a door that liberals had themselves opened.

For another thing, Marxists of a more old-fashioned stripe had no truck with the direction taken by the Frankfurt School, much less the obsessions of the wokesters.  Indeed, they could be as censorious of this direction as any social conservative.  Moreover, during the Cold War, communist countries were often as conservative on matters of sex and family as Western society, or indeed even more so.  Nor were communist societies prone, as wokeism is, to destroying loyalty to country or to a general nihilism.  Marxism also put a premium on science and rationality, at least in theory.

Then there is the fact that wokeism has allied itself to capitalism in a way Marxism could not.  Capitalists and corporations have not simply embraced wokeism out of fear but, Gottfried argues, have found it in their interests to embrace it.  For it is the poor and the working class rather than the rich who suffer from the idiocies of woke public policy, and corporations can absorb the costs of such policies whereas their smaller competitors are destroyed by them.

Finally, while the narrative of oppressor and oppressed is indeed a feature of Marxism, it is also, Gottfried points out, a feature of the rhetoric of fascism and Nazism.  And in all three cases, he claims, what we have is a modern and secularized variation on the ancient biblical distinction between the righteous and those who persecute them.  So, that a narrative of oppression is central to wokeism does not suffice to make it in any interesting way Marxist, any more than these other views are Marxist.

Hence, Gottfried’s view is that in order to understand wokeism, it is more illuminating to study its origins in the breakdown of liberalism than to look for parallels with Marxism.

What should we think of all this?  I am myself inclined to what might be a middle ground position between Hazony and Gottfried, though perhaps the differences between us are more matters of semantics and emphasis than anything deeper than that.  On the one hand, when writing on these matters myself I have not characterized wokeism as a species of Marxism, but rather have merely noted that there are Marxist influences on wokeism and parallels between the views.  On the other hand, while Gottfried makes some important points, I think that the influences and parallels are more important and illuminating than he seems to allow.  I think he also overstates the differences.

For example, Gottfried contrasts Marxism’s notional commitment to science and reason with the irrationalism of wokeism.  But on the one hand, wokesters in general do not explicitly reject science and reason any more than old-fashioned Marxism did.  On the contrary, they typically claim that science supports their views (about gender, for example).  To be sure, these claims are bogus and the “science” pure ideology tarted up in pseudoscientific drag.  But the same thing was true of Marxist claims to scientific respectability.  (Lysenkoism, anyone?)

Moreover, though the Marxist theory of ideology was claimed to be part of a scientific account of social institutions, in practice its “hermeneutics of suspicion” tends to subvert rather than facilitate rational discourse.  Criticisms of Marxism get dismissed a priori as mere smokescreens for the vested interests of capitalists, just as criticisms of wokeism get dismissed a priori as mere smokescreens for racism, patriarchy, homophobia, etc.  Then there are the parallels many have noted between the mass hysteria of wokeism (manifested in Twitter mobs, cancel culture, and the riots of 2020) and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

To be sure, the postmodernist influences on wokeism are a point in favor of Gottfried’s view that there is an important difference at least in theory between traditional Marxism and wokeism in their attitudes toward reason and science.  But the record of actual Marxist and woke practice (which Gottfried himself appeals to in making his case) supports the judgment that they are less far apart on this score than Gottfried supposes.

The same thing is true where the other differences Gottfried describes are concerned.  Yes, during the Cold War, communist countries were far more socially conservative than any wokester could tolerate.  But that was in spite of Marxist theory, not because of it.  Engels, after all, famously attacked the traditional family and the bourgeois moral order.  And Marxist theory emphasized international worker solidarity over national loyalties, even if this is not how things worked out in practice.  Even the alliance between corporations and wokeism finds a parallel in actual Marxist practice, in the Chinese Communist Party’s adoption of capitalist means to socialist ends.

Then there is the fact that woke theorists explicitly acknowledge the Marxist tradition as among the influences on them.  For example, Critical Race Theorists acknowledge such influence, especially that of Antonio Gramsci (even if there are, of course, also differences with Marxism).  And Gottfried himself acknowledges the parallels between wokeism and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School.

These points do not entail that wokeism is a child of Marxism, exactly, but that does not mean it is not a relation of some other sort – a brother or a cousin, say.  And noting family relations of those kinds can be illuminating too.  Eric Voegelin famously argued that Marxism, National Socialism, and other modern political ideologies are best understood as variations on Gnosticism.  I have argued elsewhere that wokeness, too, is best understood as a kind of Gnosticism.  And I have also argued that the parallels between woke ideas about race and National Socialism are no less striking or disturbing than their parallels with Marxism.  That does not mean that wokeism just is a kind of National Socialism, any more than it just is a kind of Marxism.  It is its own thing, not quite the same as either of those noxious worldviews.  But it is no less irrational, and potentially just as dangerous.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Dr. Feser’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.)

• Related at CWR: “How to define ‘wokeness’” (March 20, 2023) by Edward Feser

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About Dr. Edward Feser 41 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of several books on philosophy and morality, including All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory (Ignatius Press, August 2022), and Five Proofs of the Existence of God and is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both also published by Ignatius Press.


  1. I wonder if it isn’t “going on a fool’s errand” to try to decipher the similarities/differences between wokism, Marxism and all the other trends that have been termed to describe culture. I simply like to think of all these movements as either turning explicitly toward God or turning explicitly away from God (whether acknowledged or not). It’s the only standard that makes sense when we look back on history and attempt to understand our current cultural malaise, ennui, and disorder. And, in the case where man adopts a life orientation that is directed away from God, it is typically directed toward the oneself and seeks, not God, but things like money, sex, and power. The orientation toward God typically seeks Truth, Beauty and the Good.

    In the final analysis there is only a choice between two options: toward God and away from God. So, with the immediate query of this piece, all we need ask is this: Is wokism directed toward or away from God explicitly and; Is Marxism directed toward or away from God explicitly.

  2. What is here called “wokeism” is simply another weapon in the arsenal of those who sow dissention in order to weaken the fabric of society. Thus, it is neither Marxist nor Fascist in itself, but rather one of the means by which a society is fragmented and thus made increasingly susceptible to totalitarian rule of whatever stripe. Wokeism is just another tool in the battle to crush us all, just like Antifa and Black Lives Matter, which promote aspects of it. This struggle has been going on in the U.S. for many, many decades; we are now seeing its cumulative effects.

    • Kudos JoAnn. I still struggle with the weaponized word WOKE. However, Webster defined the word as follows: “WOKE originated in African American English and gained more widespread use beginning in 2014 as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. By the end of that same decade it was also being applied by some as a general pejorative for anyone who is or appears to be politically LEFT-leaning”. Florida Governor DeSantis, during one of his MAGA autocratic rallies, seems to repeats WOKE over and over in a blanket stretch directed at anyone who disagrees with him.

      I am a Republican and my party is in shambles because of people like Trump and DeSantis. If anyone reputes Trump on any “issue” their family might be viciously attacked by his infected liars… Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other cults. Prime example: Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rejected Trump’s recorded call for him to “find 11,780 votes” to overthrow the 2020 POTUS election in Georgia. Brad’s wife got vulgar and threatening calls from Trump’s supporters. Could that fit WOKE on the “far right?

      Say a prayer for the salvation of our femocracy.

      • I’m consoled by your presence in saving the Republican Party from the cultural cataclysm we are now witnessing. But, do us a favor so we might lend you our support: lay out your plan to restore our culture to sound footing.

      • I’m a registered Independent for voting. Currently there are populist Republicans and establishment Republicans. The establishment Republicans are the ones who give mostly lip service and empty campaign promises, and have been doing so for decades. When challenged they quickly turn tail and refuse to fight for the voters who put them in office. They have their own version of the MSM that have been covering for them. Say what you will about Trump, his willingness to fight unmasked the establishment political phonies. He showed who the grifters were who were mainly interested in their access to the positions and perks of office.

  3. Father Vincent Miceli’s S.J. “God’s of Atheism” traces the historical development and refinement of atheism from Fauerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, Comte, Camus among others to Van Buren that precede the modern development and critique of the Frankfort School. IMHO, Father Miceli addresses the root causes of the formal synergy between communism (secular humanism) and atheism (transhumanism).

  4. Thank you for using the term “Marxism ” and not “Communism “. The terms are not synonymous as many confuse.

  5. Given that today “wokeness” has struck the heart of its intended target there is this pushback called “anti-wokeness.” Edward Feser in his essays like this one is best understood in the context of his location within this “anti-wokeness” pushback. Originally a slang for “awake,” “woke” means being aware of and passionate in addressing social injustices – like racial, economic, and environmental injustices. Originating specifically with those fighting against racial injustices, it struck those perpetuating racism specifically white supremacists and beneficiaries of white privilege. The “anti-wokeness” pushback started from this sector of society and typical of culture warfare strategies they have employed disinformation and misinformation campaigns to smear and discredit the “woke” movement. Usual in American culture warfare on the part of the right wing including the “antiwoke” is the use of the ludicrous and misleading redscare and redtagging techniques in portraying the other party as communists or socialists. Likewise in the case of the “antiwoke” assaults against the “woke” is the mischaracterization of the “woke” by falsely throwing at it as included in its wing separate movements like transgenderism and political correctness. By selling this package of falsehoods and lies about the “woke” to Catholics, the “anti-woke” best exemplified by Feser here implies that it is un-Catholic to be “woke.” The bottomline is that Feser’s advocacy in his writings against “wokeness” is simply perpetuating the injustices that the “woke” are seeking to address. As to the Catholicity of the “woke” movement we have the examples of the lives and messages of St. Oscar Romero or Dorothy Day proclaiming the “wokeness” of the Gospel, the Social Teachings of the Church, and the Catholic Faith.

    • Defending the indefensible, like a typical progressive ideologue. Your response is a cliche, although it does a good job summarizing basic wokester talking points. One cannot be a committed believer and a wokester at the same time. Those categories are mutually exclusive.

  6. This article is like asking the question: “What is the relationship between Protestantism, Dispensationalism, and Universalism?” In other words, it is trying to draw the lines between three heresies that haven’t(?) been completely defined yet.

    I am fairly certain that much more would be accomplished with a lawsuit – provided that the judge isn’t corrupt. Speculation about the theory of what has to be machinations of TPTB amounts to a valid version of the defamatory criticism of the scholastics as contemplating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

    If I want a decent chance that this comment will be publicized, I can’t descend into specifics, but there is a certain similarity between the authors of the works that Dr. Feser mentions. Those who are Machiavellian would not only create a “monster,” (i.e. heresy), but also profit off it.

    As it is, all that is necessary is to find the errors and contradict them with truth. And this would include “book burning” and terminating the employment and publicizing privileges of certain manifestations of the “intellectual cancer.”

    So long as one ONLY talks, articles like this are more a part of the problem than the solution.

  7. As Dostoyevsky wrote’ “If there is no God, then all things are permissible. The worship of self, some forms of ideology, of idols, and the occult, etc. are all intrinsically Godless and anti-Catholic. “There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.” Modernist ideas, values, and beliefs held by those within and outside the Church are forms of godlessness because they subordinate Divine Revelation to ab understanding of reality grounded in the false epistemological-methodological philosophical principals of the modernist social sciences.

  8. “Papal ban of Freemasonry,
    Leo XIII “emphasizes that ‘the ultimate and principal aim’ of Masonry ‘was to destroy to its very foundations any civil or religious order established throughout Christendom, and bring about in its place a new order founded on laws drawn out of the entrails of naturalism’.”

    The goal of the Liberals is to destroy Christendom, both Church and Countries, and for the Liberals to rise to Power amidst all the hate, persecution, suffering, death and destruction they have caused.

    In 1990, when I went down to support the troops at the Seattle Federal building, the ‘anarchists’, as they called themselves at that time, were all trying to convert us over to work for billionaire George Soros. The anarchists were paid $15.00 an hour to smash small business windows, drop rocks off freeway overpasses, and walk out onto the freeway to shut it down. The anarchists invited us to eat at this huge buffet set up right at the protest site, by George Soros. The anarchists were not afraid to call George Soros by his name.

    Through the years, there were many protests in Seattle. A Seattle reporter once commented, “looks like it is the same old crowd”. What I am saying is that the Liberals will use any ‘cause’ to inflict hate, persecution, suffering, death and destruction. What happened is that the Liberals joining up with the wokesters, became a marriage made in hell, beneficial for both parties.

    When Catholic Liberal Democrat President Biden gave lbgt, man-boy-lovers the right to marry, what an added bonus for Liberal Catholic Cardinals who move their sexual predator Catholic Priests from one unsuspecting parish to the next.

    “we still perceive in the actions of Bishop Bode a more perpetrator-oriented than victim-oriented attitude,” the victims’ advisory council said on Monday.”

    If anyone has not watched EWTN’s video, ‘Wolf in sheep’s clothing’ please do so. Saul Alinski’s Progressives, Liberals, Democrats, Marxists have grown to over 800 organizations in the US alone, and they are world wide. The Liberal’s goal is to destroy the Church along with the world, while rising to power in the Catholic Church and in the secular world, in the midst of all the hate, chaos, death and destruction.

    EWTN, Wolf in sheep’s clothing

  9. By analogy I apply the judgment by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno on socialism (paragraph 120), in whic His Holiness says: “If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”

    I appropriate His Holiness’ words and say: If wokery, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious wokery, Christian wokery, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and truly woke.

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