By rejecting the Enlightenment legacy, woke thinking plays into the hands of anti-democratic forces

By rejecting the Enlightenment legacy, woke thinking plays into the hands of anti-democratic forces

Can woke be defined? The first recorded use of the phrase “stay woke” was in the great bluesman Lead Belly’s 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys”. It was a reminder to remain vigilant in the struggle against racism. Since then, the word has gone from a wake-up call to a term of abuse wielded predominantly by right-wing politicians to discredit any effort to fight racism, sexism, or homophobia. Few today profess to being “woke”. That is not to say that the phenomenon is a chimera. The fact that no one admits to being an antisemite does not mean antisemites do not exist.


Anyone who regularly follows the news already knows many examples of woke thinking. A perfect example is the flak over the Dutch translation of a work by the Black American poet Amanda Gorman. Two-and-a-half years ago the world discovered Gorman, who read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 US presidential inauguration — the youngest poet ever to be invited to the ceremony.

As foreign-language publishers quickly moved to purchase the rights, Gorman suggested that the non-binary writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translate the poem for the Dutch version. Her reason was simple: she liked Rijneveld’s work, which is the only rational reason for choosing a translator. But then a Black Dutch fashion blogger wrote on Twitter that only a woman of colour could properly translate Gorman’s work. So the original translator, who was white, withdrew, and the publisher found a Black Dutch woman for the job.

Publishers in other countries followed suit. Univers in Barcelona decided not to release an already completed Catalan translation because the translator was white and male, and the US publisher had requested that a female African American be given the job. The German publisher found a very German solution for the translation: a committee of three female writers from different ethnic backgrounds. Examples like these are myriad and most receive extensive commentary in the media.

The woke rejection of the Enlightenment

But what we rarely reflect on are the assumptions that lie behind such incidents. The difficulty of defining woke is deeper than the reluctance of individuals to be called “woke”. The term itself is incoherent. The woke movement expresses emotions that have always animated progressives: the desire to stand with the marginalised and the determination to right historical wrongs — or at least, to remember them appropriately. Yet these emotions, while commendable, are derailed by the implicit assumptions of wokeism.

Where on the political spectrum do we place a worldview that believes deep connection and a sense of duty are possible only between people who belong to the same tribe? One that sees all claims of justice as concealed grabs for power? One that rejects all previous attempts to achieve progress as having failed or as having made matters worse? Views like these belong to the domain of traditional right-wing thought, from the French writer Joseph de Maistre to the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Today they are held by thinkers as different as Judith Butler, Saidiya Hartman, Walter Mignolo, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Gayatri Spivak, and Frank B. Wilderson, III.

One can spend hours in seminars analysing the differences that distinguish these thinkers from each other. What they all have in common is a wholesale rejection of Enlightenment thought. They blame the problems of modernity on the ideas of the Enlightenment, typically without ever reading its foundational texts. In doing so, they jettison the core principles of social liberalism. For whoever puts tribal thinking before universalism, whoever reduces claims of justice to claims of power, and whoever regards past progress as merely instituting more subtle forms of oppression will have a difficult time actively engaging in left-wing causes.

Even worse: many of the woke, like many postcolonial thinkers — the categories overlap — equate reason with violence. They regard it as an instrument of domination with which white European men oppress the rest of the world. And where reason is rejected as violence, all that’s left is the celebration of subjectivity. Today it’s called positionality, according to which it is the position of the speaker that counts; what is said is secondary. If reason is nothing more than an instrument of domination, who should make the effort to formulate an argument or understand the arguments of others?

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The Enlightenment and colonialism

Through constant repetition in various media, this attitude has become ingrained in many people — even those who have never read a word of theory. What those who embrace it do not understand is that the best ideas of the woke movement come from the very school of thought its adherents most despise. When postcolonial theorists rightly insist that we should not look at the world solely through European eyes, they join a tradition that goes back to the nineteenth-century French philosopher Montesquieu. Enlightenment thinkers used fictional characters from outside Europe — Persians, Tahitians, Chinese, Native Americans — as mouthpieces for their critiques of Europe’s social conditions because publishing them in their own names had consequences far more dangerous than a Twitter storm. In 1723, the philosopher Christian Wolff was given forty-eight hours’ notice to vacate his professorship at Halle, and the territory of Prussia, or face execution. His crime? After reading Confucius and Mencius, Wolff publicly argued that the Chinese were perfectly moral even without Christianity.

The claim that the ideas of the Enlightenment are exclusively European has been contested by a number of contemporary thinkers neither from Europe nor North America — although in mainstream Western media their positions are less present than postcolonial perspectives.

For example, the Ghanaian philosopher Ato Sekyi-Otu, for example, takes issue with Judith Butler when she asks, “What kind of cultural imposition is it to claim that a Kantian can be found in every culture?” In his book Left Universalism, Sekyi-Otu argues that it’s insulting to suggest that concepts like universalism or justice came from Europe — they abound in his native Akan language. In Against Decolonization, the Nigerian philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argues that colonialism is not the product of modern Western values. The problem, he says, is that Europeans trampled on their own ideas of freedom and self-determination once they reached foreign shores. There are important thinkers in India and Brazil who likewise refuse to regard universalism and justice as foreign imports.

The widespread assumption that Enlightenment ideas merely mask Eurocentric interests has made many forget how central they remain to any left-wing standpoint. Anyone who wants to find a brilliant diatribe against fanaticism, feudal hierarchies, slavery, and colonial plunder need only read Voltaire’s Candide. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, and many lesser-known thinkers agreed.

But there is another reason why we forget how radical Enlightenment thinkers were: critics of the Enlightenment often confuse eighteenth-century realities with the positions of Enlightenment thinkers who fought to change them, often at considerable personal risk. Leftist public intellectuals, as we know, are not always history’s victors. Like their kindred spirits from other eras, Enlightenment thinkers often failed: despite fiery condemnations, slavery and colonialism long outlived their vehement critics. Yet Enlightenment ideas provided the foundations for resistance to such conditions, as revolutionaries from Toussaint Louverture to Frantz Fanon well understood.

The foundations of progressive politics

Today more than ever, we need to recall the three basic Enlightenment principles that are essential to progressive politics.


The first and foremost is universalism. Cultural diversity is both a fact and a blessing, but when it comes to political issues, we should focus on what unites us. The opposite of universalism is now called identitarianism, as if everything that constitutes our identity can be reduced to two dimensions. As Ghanaian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah reminds us:

Until the middle of the 20th century … nobody who was asked about a person’s identity would have mentioned race, sex, class, nationality, region or religion.

It is no coincidence that, from among those categories, race and gender are taken to define our essence. After all, these are the characteristics that we do not choose for ourselves and that are therefore capable of generating the most trauma. In this, the woke movement is part of a shift in perspective that began in the 1950s in which the victim came to supersede the hero as the subject of history. At one time, the shift spoke to moral progress. Victims’ stories were finally being heard and discussed by the public at large. But in the process, recognition became associated with what the world has done to people instead of what people have done to the world. The idea of intersectionality might have emphasised the ways in which all of us have more than one identity. Instead, it is about the multiple forms of discrimination that individuals experience.


The Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry did not event want to erect a monument to the victims of the Third Reich because, as he wrote, “to be a victim alone is not an honour”. In his most recent book Elite Capture, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò similarly writes:

Suffering is partial, shortsighted, and self-absorbed. We shouldn’t have a politics that expects different: oppression is not a prep school.

Yet the belief that victimhood confers moral authority is now deeply embedded in the culture. Germany’s current efforts to counter antisemitism are also based on this belief. Because Jews were victims of the Germans, they now remain eternally identified as victims in the German consciousness. Accordingly, institutions that commemorate solely the suffering of Jews are far more likely to be heard than Jewish universalists who insist that human rights apply to everyone, even when they are Palestinians.

Right-wing thinkers, by contrast, agree with Carl Schmitt when he writes: “Anyone who says the word ‘humanity’ wants to deceive you.” To be sure, we need to remain vigilant to the ways that individuals and state actors instrumentalise universalism. As a political category, universalism was first formulated in France and still counts as a virtue there today — including among right-wing politicians who reject any attempt to fight racism as woke. The French author and activist Rokhaya Diallo emphasises that she does not reject the term universalism, only its misuse. What she and other activists are calling for is the true implementation of universalism, not its abolition.


The second basic principle of progressive thought is a firm distinction between justice and power. In practice, the distinction can be difficult to uphold. Commanders-in-chief have always claimed to wage just wars — Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush are only the most recent examples. But the principled distinction between justice and power is the foundation of progressive thought, however hard it may be to tell them apart in specific cases.

Human rights seek to put shackles on naked power. Let us not forget the historical circumstances in which those rights arose: if a peasant took the prince’s deer, he could be hanged; if a prince took the peasant’s daughter, that was just the way the world was. Without the effort to separate might from right, there is no concept of right at all.


The third basic idea uniting those who stand on the left side of the political spectrum is the conviction that people can work together to make significant progress in the real conditions of their own and others’ lives. This is often caricatured as the belief that progress is inevitable — an idea that, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, even the most committed Hegelian had to abandon. Enlightenment thinkers merely believed that progress was possible, in contrast to right-wing thinkers, who argue that the progress of a humanity burdened by original sin can never be moral, only technological.

Of course, woke activists want progress — they would be more credible, however, if they acknowledged that some progress or other has already occurred. Consistently demonstrating that for every previous step forward there have been two steps back can obscure a clear view of where you’re headed. When feminists in the West claim that we still live in a patriarchy, or woke Americans say that racism is part of the DNA of the United States, they are pointing to progress not yet achieved. That racism, sexism, and homophobia continue to exist in Western societies is beyond question. But if we don’t acknowledge that gradual progress has been made, we will be hard pressed to find the will and courage to fight for further improvement.

Like progress, ideas of solidarity and justice drive woke struggles against discrimination. What falls under the radar is that the theories the woke embrace subvert their own goals. Without universalism, there is no argument against racism, merely a bunch of individual tribes jockeying for power. If that’s all politics is, there’s no way to maintain a robust idea of justice. And without commitments to increasing universal justice, we cannot coherently strive for progress.

The problem with Foucault

Michel Foucault, the most-cited thinker of postcolonial theory, is often regarded as a leftist, yet he rejected each of these basic ideas. He is right to say that the human is an eighteenth-century invention. But he does not consider that invention to be an achievement. “Our task”, he wrote, “is to emancipate ourselves from humanism” — which requires accepting the death of the human. He always denied that there was a fundamental difference between justice and power. In his impressive analyses of modern institutions, he often showed that what looks like progress is only a more perfidious form of oppression.

Some interpreters claim that Foucault’s aims are emancipatory. But nowhere does he give any indication of what his critiques are meant to accomplish other than to engender further criticism. In large part, this is due to his rejection of normative claims. His essay “What is Enlightenment?” calls the demand to make normative judgements “the blackmail of the Enlightenment”.

American philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Michael Walzer, and Martha Nussbaum began to level similar accusations against Foucault long before the word “woke” entered the popular discourse. Even Edward Said, once an enthusiastic follower, later opined that Foucault’s politics were quietist at best. Such criticisms, though not widely known, are hard to dismiss.

Left is not woke

My aim has not been to define what “woke” is, but what it means to be on the left today. The three philosophical ideas I discuss are ones that left and liberal positions hold in common. A fourth idea distinguishes the two: for leftists, social rights, like political rights, are rights, not entitlements. “Social security”, as liberals understand it, is not a matter of justice but of charity.

My own political stance has always been more leftist than liberal in this sense. But we live in times when uniting all who wish to defend political rights is as necessary as it is urgent if we are to stem the rising tide of proto-fascism. Steve Bannon, Viktor Orbán, Benjamin Netanyahu, Narendra Modi, and other anti-democratic leaders know how to work together. It is time that we do away with the politics of symbolism once and for all.

This essay originally appeared in German in Der Spiegel, on 10 September 2023. It is translated here by Dominic Bonfiglio.

Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher and director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. Her latest book is Left is Not Woke. She is also the author of Evil in Modern Thought, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists, Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, and Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.


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