In Defense of Universalism

In Defense of Universalism

The squeamishness of today’s left has turned culture into the political terrain of the right.

President Barack Obama at an event about the importance of responsible fatherhood and mentoring in Washington, D.C., in 2010 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Left Is Not Woke
by Susan Neiman
Polity, 2023, 160 pp.

After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle
by Cedric Johnson
Verso, 2023, 416 pp.

In Left Is Not Woke, the moral philosopher Susan Neiman attempts a sorely needed intervention against the woke left in the hope of rescuing it from its addiction to identity politics in their most reductive form. Neiman is the author of, among other acclaimed works, Learning from the Germans, an account of how a country can come to terms with its barbaric past. Her new book will hopefully be read by those whom it critiques. It is also a missed opportunity. Neiman is an American who directs the Einstein Forum in Potsdam; she has lived in Germany for many years (and has written about the experience of being a Jew in Germany). Despite its essential insights, her book illustrates the great intellectual gap between the left in the United States and Europe—in ways that, frankly, left me profoundly dispirited. And it illustrates the intellectual abstraction that bedevils parts of the left.

Cedric Johnson, an African-American Marxist, is rooted in a different intellectual tradition than Neiman but shares many of Left Is Not Woke’s concerns. Johnson’s After Black Lives Matter is a scathing analysis of racial essentialism and woke pessimism, which, he charges, ignore—indeed betray—the heroic struggles and accomplishments of the activists and workers of previous generations. Unlike Neiman, he addresses many of our most polarizing issues, including policing, incarceration, and crime, in forthright, original, and unusually subtle ways, and he goes head-to-head with writers such as Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The very existence of this book left me feeling energized and hopeful. But it occasionally descends into a kind of economic reductionism, and therefore also illustrates some of the contemporary left’s shortcomings.

Identity politics posit that inherited characteristics such as race or gender endow one with certain perspectives that others might not have. This is obviously true. But the woke left takes this to another level. It claims that identity—usually narrowly defined—gives one a kind of automatic moral and political authority: what philosophers call “standpoint epistemology.” Only those within a group can determine, or even discuss, its politics, its history, its arts and culture (no appropriation, please!). Subjective experience is mistaken for knowledge and insight. (Ralph Ellison took a different view of this when he wrote, in Invisible Man, “Blood and skin do not think!”)

These idea...