‘America’s Cultural Revolution’: How the radical left conquered our culture
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Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Christopher Rufo’s new book, “America’s Cultural Revolution” (Broadside Books (July 18, 2023).
In 1975, the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke to a coalition of labor leaders in New York City and denounced the American radical Angela Davis, who had become a symbol of international communism and violent revolution against the West.
During this period, the Soviet government had churned out propaganda celebrating Davis as a world-historical figure and instructed millions of schoolchildren to send her cards and paper flowers. “In our country, literally for one whole year, we heard of nothing at all except Angela Davis,” Solzhenitsyn said.
But this campaign was based on a lie. The Soviets had created a global slave state, with a network of gulags, dungeons, and prison camps extending from Vladivostok to Havana; Solzhenitsyn himself had spent eight years enduring imprisonment, torture, and forced labor.
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Davis, however, followed the propaganda line. During a publicity tour of the Soviet Union in 1972, she praised her hosts for their treatment of minorities and denounced the United States for its oppression of “political prisoners.” But during an unscripted encounter, Solzhenitsyn said, a group of Czech dissidents approached Davis with a plea: “Comrade Davis, you were in prison. You know how unpleasant it is to sit in prison, especially when you consider yourself innocent. You have such great authority now. Could you help our Czech prisoners? Could you stand up for those people in Czechoslovakia who are being persecuted by the state?”
Davis responded with ice: “They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.”
For Solzhenitsyn, this moment revealed everything. Davis embodied the spirit of left-wing revolution: sacrificing the human being in service of ideology. Her commitment to the great abstractions—liberation, freedom, humanity—was a ruse. “That is the face of Communism,” he said. “That is the heart of Communism for you.”
The Soviet Union eventually collapsed and many Americans considered the question of left-wing revolution settled. It had proven disastrous ev- everywhere it had been tried—Asia, Africa, Latin America. The world had learned its lesson, they believed and moved beyond the promises of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.
But they were wrong. Although the left-wing cultural revolution had self-destructed in the Third World, over time it found a new home: in America.
This new revolution patiently built itself in the shadows and then, after the death of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, exploded onto the American scene. All of a sudden, the old Angela Davis narrative appeared everywhere: America was an irredeemably racist nation; whites constituted a permanent oppressor class; the country could be saved only through the performance of elaborate guilt rituals and the wholesale overturning of its founding principles.
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All of the formative institutions—universities, schools, corporations, government agencies—repeated the revolution’s vocabulary like a mantra: “systemic racism,” “white privilege,” “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Meanwhile, in the streets, mobs of left-wing rioters expressed the ideology in physical form, toppling statues of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln and burning entire city blocks to the ground.
The question of left-wing revolution was suddenly reopened. How did this happen? Where did these ideas come from? Who was responsible for the chaos?
In order to answer these questions and understand the dizzying cultural changes that have swept across the United States—the capture of America’s institutions, the Black Lives Matter street revolution, the spread of racialist ideology in public education, and the rise of the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” bureaucracy—one must return to their origins.
The story of America’s cultural revolution begins in 1968, as America endured a long season of student uprisings, urban riots, and revolutionary violence that has provided the template for everything that followed. During this period, left-wing intellectuals developed a new theory of revolution in the West and their most dedicated disciples printed pamphlets, detonated homemade bombs, and dreamed of overthrowing the state.
The ambition of my book “America’s Cultural Revolution’ is to reveal the inner history of America’s cultural revolution, tracing the arc of its development from its origin point to the present day.
The book is divided into four parts: revolution, race, education, and power. Each part begins with a biographical portrait of the four prophets of the revolution: Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, and Derrick Bell. These figures established the disciplines of critical theory, critical praxis, critical pedagogy, and critical race theory, which, in the subsequent half century, multiplied into a hundred subdisciplines and devoured the university, the street, the school, and the bureaucracy. Together they represent the intellectual genesis of the revolution. Their ideas, concepts, language, and tactics shaped and now suffuse the politics of the present.
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Herbert Marcuse was the preeminent philosopher of the so-called New Left, which sought to mobilize the white intelligentsia and the black ghetto into a new proletariat. Angela Davis was one of Marcuse’s graduate students and, after pledging to violently overthrow the state, became the face of racial revolt in the West. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian Marxist whose work on turning schools into instruments of revolution became the gospel of left-wing education in America. Derrick Bell was a Harvard law professor who set the foundation for critical race theory and recruited a cadre of students who would capture elite institutions with their new racialist ideology.
During the 1970s, the most violent elements of the New Left coalition— the Weather Underground, the Black Panther Party, and Black Liberation Army—fell apart, but the spirit of their revolution carried on in a subtler but equally dangerous form. As Solzhenitsyn revealed the bankruptcy of the communist movements in the West, the most sophisticated activists and intellectuals of the New Left initiated a new strategy, the “long march through the institutions,” which brought their movement out of the streets and into the universities, schools, newsrooms, and bureaucracies. They developed intricate theories along the lines of culture, race, and identity, and silently rooted them into the entire range of America’s knowledge-making institutions.
Over the subsequent decades, the cultural revolution that began in 1968 transformed, almost invisibly, into a structural revolution that changed everything. The critical theories, first developed by Marcuse, Davis, Freire,and Bell, were not designed to operate as mere abstractions. They were designed as political weapons and oriented toward the acquisition of power.
As the disciples of the New Left gained purchase over the great bureaucracies, they advanced the revolution through a process of relentless negation: it gnawed, chewed, smashed, and disintegrated the entire system of values that came before it. And their strategy was ingenious: the capture of America’s institutions was so gradual and bureaucratic, it largely escaped the notice of the American public, until it burst into consciousness following the death of George Floyd.
Today, America’s cultural revolution has reached the endgame. The descendants of the New Left have completed their long march through the institutions and installed their ideas into school curricula, popular media, government policy, and corporate human resources programs. Their core set of principles, first formulated in the radical pamphlets of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army, has been sanitized and adapted into the official ideology of America’s elite institutions, from the Ivy Leagues to the boardrooms of Walmart, Disney, Verizon, American Express, and Bank of America.
The critical theories of 1968 have turned into a substitute morality: racism is elevated into the highest principle; society is divided into a crude moral binary of “racist” and “anti-racist”; and a new bureaucratic logic is required to adjudicate guilt and redistribute wealth, power, and privilege. To enforce this new orthodoxy, left-wing activists have established departments of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” across an entire stratum of the public and private bureaucracies. Allies are rewarded with status, position, and employment. Dissenters are shamed, marginalized, and sent into moral exile.
America’s cultural revolution has culminated in the emergence of a new ideological regime that is inspired by critical theories and administered through the capture of the bureaucracy. Although the official political structures have not changed—there is still a president, a legislature, and a judiciary—the entire intellectual substructure has shifted. The institutions imposed a revolution from above, effectuating a wholesale moral reversal and implementing a new layer of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” across the entire society.
Nobody voted for this change; it simply materialized from within.
The ultimate goal is still revolutionary: the activists of the radical Left want to replace individual rights with group-identity-based rights, enact a scheme of race-based wealth redistribution, and suppress speech, based on a new racial and political calculus. They want a “total rupture” with the existing order.
Fortunately, despite its successful blitz through the institutions, the revolution has its limits. The political Left might have succeeded in unmasking and delegitimizing the old order—the critical theories have supplanted the mythology of the American Founding, and the substitute morality of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” has become the new operating system of the elite institutions—but the revolution cannot escape the fundamental contradictions that have plagued it since its beginning.
The aspiration of “America’s Cultural Revolution” is to open his eyes. It is to reveal the nature of the critical theories, to establish the facts about the new ideological regime, and to prepare the grounds for revolting against it.
The intellectual movement that began in 1968 was able to initiate the process of disintegrating the old values, but it could not build a new set of values to replace them. Instead, the New Left’s call to commit “class suicide” and renounce “white-skin privilege” unleashed a torrent of narcissism, guilt, and self-destruction. The terror campaigns of the Weather Underground and Black Liberation Army alienated the public and led to a swift reaction. The student radicals eventually abandoned their armed revolution and transformed themselves into patronage-seeking academics, activists, and bureaucrats.
The same dynamic holds today. The descendants of the New Left have captured the elite institutions but have not been able to reorder the deeper structures of society. The war of negation has failed to deliver the world beyond. It has, instead, yielded a world of failure, exhaustion, resentment, and despair. The universities have lost the ancient telos of knowledge, replacing it with an inferior set of values oriented toward personal identities and pathologies. The resurgence of politically motivated street violence with the Black Lives Matter movement—itself a crude reincarnation of the Black Panther Party—has wreaked havoc on American cities. The public schools have absorbed the principles of revolution but have failed to teach the rudimentary skills of reading and mathematics. Critical race theory bears all the flaws of traditional Marxism, then amplifies them with a narrative of racial pessimism that crushes the very possibility of progress.
Over the span of 50 years, the cultural revolution has slowly lowered its mask and revealed its hideous face—nihilism. The anxiety that has spread through every corner of American life is wholly justified: the common citizen can sense that a new ideological regime has been established in the institutions that provide the structure for his social, political, and spiritual life. He understands intuitively that appeals to a new system of governance based on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” are a pretense for establishing a political order that is hostile to his values, even if he does not yet possess the vocabulary to pierce through the shell of euphemism and describe its essence.
The aspiration of “America’s Cultural Revolution” is to open his eyes. It is to reveal the nature of the critical theories, to establish the facts about the new ideological regime, and to prepare the grounds for revolting against it. This book raises the questions that exist beneath the surface of the cultural revolution. Does the public want an equality society or a revenge society? Will it work to transcend racialism or to entrench it? Must it tolerate destruction in the name of progress?
Although it may seem that America’s cultural revolution has entered a period of dominance, the space between its ambitions and its outcomes has left open the possibility of reversal. The simple fact is that society under the critical theories does not work. The revolution is not a path to liberation; it is an iron cage.
Does the public want an equality society or a revenge society? Will it work to transcend racialism or to entrench it? Must it tolerate destruction in the name of progress?
This is, in short, a work of counter-revolution. The basic premise is that the enemies of the cultural revolution must begin by seeing the critical theories and the “long march through the institutions” with clear eyes. They must help the common citizen understand what is happening around him and mobilize the vast reservoir of public sentiment against the ideologies, laws, and institutions that seek to make the cultural revolution a permanent feature of American life.
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The task for the counter-revolutionary is not simply to halt the movement of his adversaries but to resurrect the system of values, symbols, myths, and principles that constituted the essence of the old regime, to reestablish the continuity between past, present, and future, and to make the eternal principles of freedom and equality meaningful again to the common citizen.
This counter-revolution is already forming and staking out the territory for the fight ahead. The question now is which vision of America will prevail and which vision will return into the void.
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