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A Conversation With Susan Neiman About Left and Woke

In their justified concern for inequalities of power, the woke often simply focus on power struggles rather than thinking about justice, which sometimes gets left by the wayside. If all you see in history is attempted progress that failed, you’ll find it hard to struggle towards progress in the future.

Robert Kuttner: Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum, in Potsdam, Germany, a position she’s held since the year 2000. She’s lived in Germany more than three decades. Susan has a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard; and she has taught at Yale and Tel Aviv University.

She’s an American by birth, born in Atlanta. Susan is the author of nine books, but I think she’s best known to American lay readers for a remarkable book that we did a podcast about a few years ago, published in 2019, called Learning from the Germans. The subtitle is Race and the Memory of Evil. And her point, to summarize a complicated book, is that Germany is really the one country that has accepted responsibility for past evil in a way that the United States has only very partially done.

I wanted to have this conversation with Susan about her newest book, whose title is Left INot Woke. Those are fighting words.

What do you mean that left is not woke?

Susan Neiman:

This book came about after a series of conversations I was having with friends in various countries. My guess is that you have had the same conversation in one form or another. They would point to some news item in which someone was being cancelled. And the friend would say: “If this is left, I guess I’m not left anymore.”

And I said, wait a second. What is being done here is not left. In many respects it has more in common with conservatism and even fascism by making tribal identities primary. This is actually quite reactionary. So I set out to try to untangle what really is left from what is woke, in fairly simple terms.

Robert Kuttner:

In your view, what's the essence of left? And why is that at odds with what is characterized as “woke?”

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Susan Neiman:

Universalism is the very first principle that distinguishes left from right, and always has. The right believes that the only people you ever have real connections and obligations to are members of your own tribe.

Since the Enlightenment, liberals and progressives have insisted that there's a common humanity that goes beyond differences of tribes and clans. This is not to say that particular histories aren’t interesting and important. But what’s most politically important is a common human dignity that needs to be respected, and that can be found in anyone anywhere.

A second core idea is that it’s possible to make a principled distinction between justice and power. The third is a belief in the possibility of progress—not the inevitability of progress, as it’s often caricatured, but simply its possibility. And this, too, is an idea that comes from the Enlightenment: The idea that human beings working together could actually improve their own and other people's lives was a new idea; we’ve come to take it for granted.

Now here we have to go just a little bit into theory. So called post-colonial theory, which depends on theorists like Michel Foucault, even among people who don't read any theoretical stuff, holds that the very idea of universalism is a Eurocentric sham to pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of the world. This is totally wrong because the most important Enlightenment thinkers believed that humanistic principles applied universally. They were the first opponents of colonialism and slavery.

In order to believe that we can make progress in the future, you actually have to believe that we made progress in the past. But you have some people criticizing, say, Lincoln, for not going far enough. Of course, our ability to go further than Lincoln in combating racism was made on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln and people like him who died for the rights of African Americans.

But instead of saying that, which would be a progressive view, and celebrating the fact that we’re able to go further than Lincoln was in understanding and fighting racism, you have people saying that Lincoln was a racist and that we are still living in a world that’s just as racist as it was in 1865.

It’s also important to distinguish left from liberal. Leftists, like me, believe that a whole series of things, like education and workers' rights and health care, parental leave, vacation, housing are social rights. Liberals call them benefits or entitlements or safety nets. But all of those things are written into the 1948 UN declaration on Human Rights, which was ratified by most countries that were member of the members of the UN at the time. It's an entirely different conceptual way of looking at those things.

No country has ever realized all of those rights. But if you're on the left you believe that social rights are not utopian, but genuine rights to be worked for.

Robert Kuttner:

Let’s go back to Lincoln and Jefferson. One of the fallacies of wokeism, I think, is to fail to locate historical figures as figures of their own time. You would not expect Jefferson or Lincoln to have the sensibility of Martin Luther King, much less of Black Lives Matter. You have to look at Lincoln as someone who was quite radical for the 1850s.

It’s one thing to pull down statues of Robert E. Lee, another to demand that we reject Jefferson or even Lincoln. That seems an example of woke excess, splintering the progressive coalition, and giving a lot of ammunition to the right, and being an unwitting ally of neoliberals and absolute reactionaries.

The Forge published a very courageous essay by Maurice Mitchell, who is now the national director of the Working Families party. He wrote that it’s a mistake to use one’s identity or personal experience as a justification for one’s political position. He writes that there are 40 million Black people in this country. Some have great politics, some don’t; and one's racial or gender identity or experience in a marginalized community is not, in and of itself, a sufficient mandate for one’s perspective to prevail.

Do you agree with that view? And where does the effort to police language fit in: asking people to use their pronouns, inventing words like Latinx.

Susan Neiman:

Yes, I entirely agree. And I think the emphasis on policing language really is born out of despair—the sense that well, we can't make any changes in the real world, but at least we can change our language.

Let's not forget, woke was a marginal term in 2016. Few people were using it. It comes originally out of black culture. It was first used by the Bluesman Leadbelly in 1936, and a song about the Scottsboro brothers. But it didn't come into common parlance until the Trump era.

You mentioned my book Learning From the Germans, which I still think is a good book, but I am working on a long piece called “What I learned since I wrote learning from the Germans.” In the last three years, Germany has acted from a misguided sense of guilt. There has been a campaign in Germany, a sort of hypersensitivity against any perceived form of antisemitism, which includes almost any criticism of Israel.

As the Israeli government has been moving further towards the right, Germany has ramped up its expressions of guilt to the point where Germans have called Jews or Israelis like me, who speak out against the Israeli government, anti-Semitic.

This strikes me as having extremely important parallels with some things happening in the United States; because if you make the voice of the victim as the only voice you listen to and you prioritize victim identity over anything else, you can get into enormous trouble.

All of us have a number of identities. They can grow or recede in importance at different times, and essentializing any one part of them used to be considered completely reactionary, or even racist or sexist because these are the components of identity over which we have the least control.

Originally you might have thought the concept of intersectionality is a way of acknowledging that we all have different identities, and more than one. But it's  been turned into shorthand for the idea that some people are victims in more than one way. Now, I don’t deny that, and I think it’s important to point to the fact that Black women have experienced discrimination and marginalization, both because they’re Black, and because they’re women.

But what I’m arguing against is prioritizing those parts of our identity that leave us the least agency, and basing our political and moral decisions on that. This, unfortunately, is something that the woke do.

Looking back at the three core principles common to liberals and leftists—universalism, justice, and the possibility of progress—wokeism prioritizes tribalism, and particularly those pieces of identity that are most likely to make someone a victim, and over which a person has the least amount of control.

In their justified concern for inequalities of power, the woke often simply focus on power struggles rather than thinking about justice, which sometimes gets left by the wayside. And thirdly, if all you see in history is attempted progress that failed, you’ll find it hard to struggle towards progress in the future.

Robert Kuttner:

To give the benefit of the doubt to people who want others to be woke, defined as radically conscious of oppression, you might say that they are proceeding in a perverse way, first by making demands on the rest of the progressive community that you have to show us that you are a better ally by doing thus and such. Otherwise you’re just a false ally. It’s self-marginalizing. Not enough of the rest of the progressive community is going to meet the purity test. Instead of expanding your power coalition, you’re going to narrow it.

And secondly, wokeism presents an easily caricatured set of propositions that the right is just going to run with. I don’t want to turn your elegant book of moral philosophy into a tactical manual. But let’s take a few minutes and talk about what we do about this politically.

The right wing’s caricature of wokeism has become a basis for embracing old-fashioned racism. Most Americans support affirmative action, a distinctly non-woke term. But the further out on the woke continuum of linguistics you get, the more unpopular and suspect these contrivances are, and the more you give you give ammunition to the right.

In Learning from the Germans, you compared the American experience of reckoning with Jim Crow with the German experience of reckoning with the Holocaust, and you found the American experience quite wanting. But in your new book you say that actually, if you think about it, there has been a lot of progress. Look at what race relations were like when I was growing up in the in the sixties, and look what they are now. And even though there's been a terrible amount of backsliding since Trump, we”ve actually had a lot of progress.

Do I have that right?

Susan NeimanYou have that absolutely right.

My book was finished in late 2018, before the New York Times’ 1619 project, before George Floyd was murdered. The Confederate flag was still flying over the Mississippi capitol; and no one, I believe, had taken down a statue of a of a Confederate general. So in the past five years the US has gone much further in facing up to its national crimes. 

I do think the Confederate statues should be gone. We need to learn about this period from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, for most people was a hole in our collective national memory. On the other hand, while we are in the process of facing our racial history we are ignoring our political history. Very few Americans know about the powerful labor movements in the first half of the 20th century and how they were suppressed, very few know about the implications of the Cold War.

Let me return to a question you asked about tactics. I do think tactically, because I’m a sometime activist as much as I am a philosopher; and I’m terrified, as I say at the end of the book, about some version of a repeat of what happened in Germany in 1933, when the Nazis came to power not by winning a democratic majority, but because of infighting between different left wing groups, all of whom felt that their scorn and hatred of the other was entirely justified.

We have fascist movements rising all over the world right now. Like you, I am worried about the left splitting itself over these kinds of issues.

I also think that tactics improve when the ideas behind the tactics improve. And that’s the reason I wrote this book. An ally is the wrong concept in progressive struggles for justice. To go back to the Nazi example, Hannah Arendt wrote that Eichmann should not have been indicted for crimes against the Jewish people. He should have been indicted for crimes against humanity. And she was right.

Of course I support racial justice—but not as an “ally,” which is someone whose interests are temporarily aligned, like the United States and the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Allies are different from those who share your principles and who stand with you on the basis of deep convictions, not shared interests.

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School.

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