The Woke Contempt for Workers Explained

The progressive left used to be concerned with workers first and foremost. At least, ostensibly. Nowadays, by contrast, they seem single-mindedly focused on equality between groups defined by immutable characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, and race. School teachers, who have enough problems as it is, are forced to attend critical race theory (CRT) struggle sessions. The Democratic Party’s stance on abortion has taken on a never-before-seen radicalism even though permissiveness towards abortion is correlated with levels of education (even Joseph Stalin was willing to compromise on this issue). Currently, the Biden administration seems to be banking on transgender activism to ameliorate its electoral prospects instead of implementing common-sense measures to reduce costs for blue-collar citizens. What gives? How can one explain this radical shift towards far-reaching disregard for thewants and needs of the people progressives once marketed themselves as representing – working people and the lower classes?
It has often been noted that the new, “woke” left has shifted its focus from economic class to immutable characteristics, as Christopher Rufo does in his account of the emergence of CRT. Still, one may be forgiven for wondering why leftists are tending to pursue wokeness to the obvious detriment of what some might term the proletariat. The reason is to be found in socialists’ eternal tendency to prioritize one issue above all others. Back when that issue was economic equality, they pursued an ideology of class warfare at the expense of equality between groups defined by immutable characteristics. This frequently forgotten reality was illuminated in a recent scholarly article, wherein academic Elizabeth Wood sought to explain why the Soviet government tolerated and even perpetuated certain forms of inequality between the sexes despite its official egalitarianism. As summarized by Andrea Graziosi later in the paper, her explanation draws on “five […] factors deriving from the fundamental contradiction between a class-based reading of society and a gender-based vision of it—essentially, Marxism-Leninism versus Marxism-Feminism” (p.156). So while the communists were theoretically egalitarian, this really meant a commitment to equality between certain groups, with other forms of equality an afterthought at best.
But how to explain this feature of leftism? One part of the picture is a sort of ideological rigidity that looks at all societal problems through the lens of one big conflict. Thus, Graziosi attributes the Soviet Union’s tolerance for misogyny partly to “the idea—on which Marxism rested—that the “working class” in liberating itself liberates everyone. Family and gender roles clearly show that this is simply untrue, thus de facto contesting Marxism’s theoretical core” (ibid.: 156-167). Ergo, the problem is not just that the Marxian left prioritizes one issue above all others, but that it thinks that resolving one issue will automatically resolve all others as well. The big issue which determines progressives’ view of all other problems used to be perceived class struggle, with big business oppressing everyone else, whereas now it is perceived bigotry, with straight white males oppressing everyone else. 
Another side to the problem is that socialists have historically divided society into oppressors and oppressed in a binary fashion, leaving little room for intermediate states. Since their program relies on stirring up enough resentment to overthrow the fundamental institutions of society, they cannot admit much nuance into their descriptions of society’s structure. Yet acknowledging that, for instance, many of the most “marginalized” Americans actually want restrictions on abortion would complicate their narratives in just such a way.
This tendency among socialists towards portraying social life as a struggle between just two categories of people, oppressors and oppressed, dates back an impressively long time, long enough to make it seem an indispensible part of socialism. In a book chapter published in 1891, lawyer and Encyclopedia Britannica contributor Edward Stanley Robertson argued:
"Confining ourselves to the United Kingdom, I affirm that there exists, between the so-called ‘millionaire’ and the class described as the residuum, no gulf whatever, but an absolutely complete gradation. […] Socialist rhetoricians have no scruple in confusing their own and other people’s ideas on this subject by their illogical use of the word ‘proletariat.’ At one time, it means people who have no land; at another, it seems to signify people who have no capital; in all cases it is used with a kind of tacit connotation of ‘pauper.’ "
One might compare such a muddled usage of the term to the multi-faceted employment which the word “marginalized” receives from progressives and socialists nowadays.
Now that we have described and partially explained the socialist tendency to divide society into two groups and define their goal of “equality” solely according to this distinction, we can note this penchant’s pernicious consequences. An invaluable resource on this topic is Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s essay “Marxist Roots of Stalinism.” Ominously, Kolakowski’s argument suggests that the aforesaid feature of socialist thought naturally pushes society towards totalitarianism, as seen in communism’s evolution into Stalinism. “Marx’s […] mythology of the historically privileged proletarian consciousness,” writes the philosopher, was likely “responsible for his theory’s being eventually turned into an ideology of the totalitarian movement” (p.291). What the essay teaches us is that the idea of a fundamentally distinct group – that is, the “oppressed” or, more specifically, the proletariat – that was to be given greater consideration than the rest of society underpinned the radicalism of Marxist ideology and drove it towards tyranny. According to this analysis, “it was taken for granted that the ‘proletariat,’ by virtue of its historical mission, has a privileged cognitive position, and thus that its vision of the social ‘totality’ is bound to be right” (ibid.: p.293). The notion that the proletariat was infallible led to the idea that the Communist Party, which represented it, was infallible, which in turn begat the conviction that Joseph Stalin, who headed the Party, was infallible – and entitled to rule in absolutist fashion.
It does not take an expert to see parallels with this development – at least, its early stages – in today’s political environment. Particularly ingrained is the belief that certain people’s opinions are inherently more valuable because they belong to the “oppressed” segment of society. And, yes, we are already seeing that belief being weaponized for political power. As David French commented on the infamous video of a DNC attendee saying that her “job [was] to shut other white people down,” what was showcased there was a strategy of self-elevation: “You “listen” to the experience of the oppressed, and then use your power and privilege allegedly in service of their needs and demands.” Consider also the infamous “Sokal Squared” affair, when a paper contending “that white males in college shouldn’t be allowed to speak in class [and should] be asked to sit on the floor in chains” was accepted by a major academic journal of feminist philosophy. This despotic potential is all the more troubling because Ibram X. Kendi, critical race theory’s high priest, has already proposed a “Department of Antiracism” which would be endowed with authoritarian power over the whole US government and the prerogative to constrain individuals’ freedom of speech.
In counclusion, history reveals a continuous, obsessive single-mindedness in the socialist intellectual tradition. This attitude is a logical means to gin up antipathy and anger in service to a radically transformative agenda. Just how pervasive this intellectual heritage is can be seen in the fact that, just a few decades ago, it tended to cut the other way: class conflict was held up über alles at the expense of gender equality.
Boy Worker by Howard R. Hollem is licensed under Library of Congress