Wokeness and the Cultural Revolution

Brecht Savelkoul:

Are we living through a new Cultural Revolution? As someone who has spent more than half an afternoon considering Chinese history, I have some very nuanced and complicated views on this question… Just kidding, of course we aren’t. I feel like I’m insulting my own intelligence spelling this out. If you are the kind of person who feels Maoist China is a reasonable comparison to our current situation, I recommend you press the X-button on top of this browser tab, because I’m not going to waste another word on this nonsense.

Good, now that those morons have left us, let’s look for a better comparison. Because merely debunking bad historical analogies never seems to work. They just keep coming back until they’re replaced by a stronger one. Yet until recently I struggled to find a good analogy to describe the “woke” movement. As happens so often in these cases though, I stumbled upon something when I wasn’t particularly looking for it.

People read newspapers and magazines and sat in stunned silence. They were overcome with unspeakable horror. How were we supposed to live with this? Many greeted the truth as an enemy. And freedom as well. “We don’t know our own nation. We don’t understand what the majority of people think about; we see them, we interact with them every day, but what’s on their minds? What do they want? We have no idea. But we will courageously take it upon ourselves to educate them. Soon, we will learn the whole truth and be horrified,” my friend would say in my kitchen, where we often sat talking.

That was Svetlana Alexievich on the intellectual atmosphere during the latter years of the Soviet Union. More specifically, she’s referring to Mikhael Gorbachev’s decision to throw open the archives. For the first time in Soviet history it became possible to see the founders in an unflattering light. Until then all the focus had been on the idealism of Lenin and his revolutionary comrades. The evidence from the archives though gave an uncomfortable insight into the ruthlessness with which they had pursued their grip on power. Otto von Bismarck supposedly called this the “sausage factory” of politics and recommended people with weak stomachs to look away. But the sudden media frenzy in 1980s Russia made it impossible to look away, and the history of the early Soviet Union came out of a very bloody factory indeed. According to Alexievich, the resulting disillusionment played a big part in the collapse of Soviet civilization.