REVOLUTION IS AN IDEA that dies in the excess of its actions. When its ambition becomes larger than the minds that conceived it, it becomes a heady spontaneity, and sets the stage for the eventual redundancy of its original dreamers. What it leaves behind, quashed ideals and crowded graveyards, is a monument that strains history. Revolution cancels yesterday, brings in the new, promises the kind of perfection that has eluded the newly liberated, but, in the end, the future it builds is too fragile, too artificial, to last. It is a recurring reminder.
As the last century ended, it was revolutions’ debris that announced freedom. In the new century, revolution has lost not only its dark grandeur but the benefits of geography too. There is a cultural as well as an economical inversion in the new revolution, which has shifted its stage from underdevelopment to affluence, from amoral empires to liberal democracies. It is a project in the homogenisation of ideas—ideas of social justice—curated by a collective of just minds. It is the radicalisation of the argument for an equal world, which requires elimination of any counterargument—and the banishment of the revolution’s bad eggs.
I pick up Christopher F Rufo’s America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything (Broadside Books, $32) and I’m not intrigued by the title, but only convinced by the author’s borrowing from Mao’s little red book to capture the rot spreading through capitalism’s holy precincts. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was the bloodiest mind game ever played on humanity in which both the accused and the accuser were suspects, for what the Great Helmsman wanted was a clean slate on which he could draw the perfect tomorrow. In the new Cultural Revolution, blood is only metaphorical.
What prompts Rufo, one of America’s most eloquent activist-intellectuals from the Right, to phrase the closing of the left-liberal mind with a nod to scary history is the realisation that the radicalisation of what was once taken for granted as the freest public square is sustained by an intellectual tradition of exclusion and expulsion. The horrifying death of George Floyd, in retrospect, radioactivated the legacy of Herbert Marcuse, the guru of the New Left, and Angela Davis, the angry evangelist of racial justice.
Mao’s Cultural Revolution was the bloodiest mind game ever played on humanity, for what the Great Helmsman wanted was a clean slate on which he could draw the perfect tomorrow. In the new Cultural Revolution, blood is only metaphorical
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Marcuse saw revolution’s first seeds in the inherent immoralism of affluence—in the multiplying injustices, social as well as cultural, of capitalism. He armed resentment against capitalism with ideas of subversion. Angela Davis was the disciple who put his theories into action, and would become, in the ideological lore of Black resistance, an American revolutionary oozing Afro cool. She turned race into a permanent dispute.
Post-Floyd America has turned that dispute into a doctrine of rejection, and Rufo is in the vanguard of the debunkers. The battlefield is the critical race theory, which sees racism as a social and cultural construct. Individual morality is insignificant and what matters is structural sin, sanctified by history. And white guilt is a natural consequence. Rufo, as an activist-intellectual, became the theory’s most effective repudiator from the Right. The book is the “inner history” of the radical left movement, the critical race theory being its most expressive facet, that stretches from revered talking shops to the higher echelons of political power.
Every revolution creates an elite, the guardians of the righteous cause. As tastemakers of wokedom and exorcists of history, as conscience-keepers of a land without justice, they need, as revolutionaries as a rule do, enemies. The so-called cancel culture that shook America for a while was a purification rite performed by those who claimed copyright over social morality. They didn’t spare the past either. They reread it through the tinted lens of the present.
Has America’s cultural revolution run its course? As Rufo writes, “the great weakness of the cultural revolution is that it negates the metaphysics, morality, and stability of the common citizen. As it undermines the institutions of family, faith, and community, it creates a void in the human heart that cannot be filled with its one-dimensional ideology.” Revolutions begin as a provocation; they strive for an alternative reality. They condemn the present for a perfect future. Revolutions, as the proverb goes, devour their own children because, as they peak, the individual ceases to exist and everything is reduced to an abstraction. It has never been the salvation of the individual, but the masses. The tragedy of the one is not what moves the revolution, but the imagined future of the many.
The Left that peddles the progressive agenda, in Rufo’s America and elsewhere, divides the geography of injustice into indexed groups of identity. The raw power of common sense, combined with the individual intimacies of community life, has a way of defeating the codified abstractions of ideologies. The Left never learns—or unlearns.