Marxism Doesn’t Equal “Wokeness.” But If You Oppose Oppression, You Should Be a Marxist.

The Right uses “Marxism” to describe everything from LGBTQ rights to corporate diversity measures. It’s a deeply confused definition. But it’s not wrong about one thing: Marxists do indeed want to dismantle all forms of oppression.

Charlie Kirk speaks at Culture War Turning Point USA event at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio on October 29, 2019. (Megan Jelinger / AFP via Getty Images)

The American right’s long and venerable tradition of red-baiting has always involved branding any kind of efforts at progressive social change, from the mild liberal variety to the genuinely radical, as socialist or communist. One of the most conspiratorial forms of this idea — with roots in the Nazis’ antisemitic theory of “Judeo-Bolshevism” — goes under the name “cultural Marxism.” That’s the theory that Jewish leftists fleeing Nazi Germany, including Frankfurt School theorists, plotted to subtly indoctrinate Americans in Marxist ideology, which they intentionally and surreptitiously rebranded in less-scary “cultural” forms like feminism and black liberation.

In other words, radical Jewish immigrant professors are behind all the movements for greater civil rights and social equality, which are actually a secret vehicle for the imposition of Soviet-style communism in the United States. There’s no evidence to back up this conspiracy theory, but that hasn’t interfered with its staying power. The cultural Marxist is just too attractive to the Right, tying together many of its favorite bogeymen into a neat story. The theory might not possess the lurid mythology of the QAnon universe, but its utility for right-wing ideologues has kept it in play for the better part of a century.

In a recent tweet, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk added a new twist on the cultural Marxism theory. Said Kirk:

In Kirk’s version, once again the defense of equal rights for black and LGBTQ people is a Trojan horse for Marxism. The modern twist is that clever leftists have taken their conspiratorial subterfuge a step further by hiding their radical agenda behind acronyms.

Even weirder than the mystifying role attributed to acronyms is Kirk’s association of Marxism with concepts that have little to do with it. DEI refers to diversity, equity, and inclusion — basically a set of frameworks employed by organizations (mostly private companies) to promote the equal treatment and participation of historically oppressed groups. ESG stands for environmental, social, and governance, an approach to investing that’s supposed to take into account social impacts beyond the financial benefits to shareholders. And CEI, or the Corporate Equality Index, is a metric designed by the Human Rights Campaign to track how corporations perform on inclusion of LGBTQ employees.

To call these concepts Marxist is quite a stretch, as they clearly come from the corporate world, not the world of people trying to take on the power of corporations. Kirk’s perspective reveals that the Right continues to crudely conflate Marxism with social progressivism, a tradition that goes back to the original postwar conspiracy theory.

Marxists are in fact often critical of these initiatives. At best, DEI and CEI aim to make corporations slightly fairer for certain groups of employees, while ESG is (again, at best) an attempt to get financial institutions to look ever-so-slightly beyond their usually myopic and fiercely amoral focus on the bottom line. None of them represent a real challenge to the wealth and power of capitalists, let alone the Marxist dream of a socialist society where the economy is democratically run for the benefit of humanity. In the worst cases, hollow social justice posturing actually allows corporations to tout their social justice bona fides while continuing to mercilessly exploit their workers and destroy the planet. And that’s setting aside other problems with specific implementations of these ideas — like the fact that some DEI programs seem to worsen racial resentment.

That the Right also often describes DEI and ESG as examples of “woke capitalism” gives a clue as to why it is bizarre to call them “Marxist.” Marxists don’t want woke capitalism — we want to do away with capitalism entirely. Though it’s a rich and varied intellectual tradition, at the core of Marxism is the view that capitalist society is organized around exploitation of the working class by the owners, whose profits and power come from the labor of their workers. Because of that, workers have a powerful interest in organizing against capitalists to take over ownership of society’s productive resources. They also have the capacity to do so by using their superior numbers and their leverage at the point of production to fundamentally transform society.

That said, there is a kind of topsy-turvy accidental logic to the Right’s association of Marxism with liberal initiatives like DEI. Marxists do oppose all forms of oppression and unjust hierarchy. Marxism’s emphasis on class doesn’t come from the view that class exploitation is more morally significant than other forms of oppression. Rather, it comes from recognizing that overcoming capitalism is the only way to end the deprivation and domination that disproportionately harms minorities, and the competition for resources that provides fertile ground for bigotry. By the same token, Marxists have long held that a working-class movement for socialism can only succeed if it also fights against those ideologies, which too often prevent workers from uniting to fight their common foe in the capitalist class.

In contrast, right-wing thought is defined by its defense of established hierarchies as natural, just, or both. Attempts to undermine these hierarchies are usually seen as erroneous and likely to lead to social disaster. In the contemporary American context, this goes first and foremost for the defense of the class hierarchy, but it also applies to other inherited social hierarchies of race, gender, and the like. And there are strategic connections here: appealing to beliefs about racial differences, and so intensifying animosities between workers of different races, can help undermine the solidarity needed to build working-class movements that can challenge capitalist power.

Conservatives are natural opponents of actual Marxism, which poses a systematic challenge to a deep and fundamental form of social hierarchy: that of capitalist domination. That much is clear. Where the confusion happens is that Marxism shares its opposition to unjust hierarchy with many strands of left and liberal thought, including the most milquetoast versions embodied in ESG and DEI. Even advocates of woke capitalism, after all, are suggesting that capitalists, left to their own devices, may not do the right thing; we may even need some kind of regulation or oversight to get them to behave just a tiny bit better. The Right’s conflation of attempts at nudging corporations toward slightly more ethical behavior with the revolutionary ambition to abolish private property is a rhetorical attempt to discredit mild social liberalism by associating it with ideas that are more radical, less familiar, and tainted by associations with authoritarian governments.

Socialists should be clear about how our vision differs from that of hollow corporate liberalism. Yet we should also recognize the kernel of truth in the Right’s wild-eyed propaganda: if you’re serious about challenging oppression, you should be a Marxist.