Skip navigation

The Twofold Nature of Wokeism and the Rise of a Left-Wing Identitarian Movement

A Response to James Lindsay's argument that wokeism is critical constructivism


From left to right: Michel Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, and Derrick Bell


By Joshua Peters

I had the pleasure of meeting James Lindsay in person at an event hosted by Color Us United in Raleigh, NC, a few years ago. He delivered a compelling argument for why he believes our education system has been infiltrated by cultural Marxism masquerading as social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and critical race theory (CRT). This has been his project since he published Cynical Theories back in 2020.

At the time, he contended that this intersectionality between social justice, DEI, and CRT was what constituted wokeism. However, on social media, Lindsay reformulated his position by suggesting that the “right name for the ‘Woke’ ideology” is critical constructivism. This is in light of the fact that so many critics of wokeism have failed to provide a satisfactory definition of the concept corresponding to what they believe to be a problematic left-wing movement. I get the sense that Lindsay believes that he may have found it.

The aim of this essay is to respond to Lindsay’s argument that wokeism is critical constructivism. I will summarize his argument by highlighting what I believe are key points that explain his exposition on the nexus between wokeism and critical constructivism. Next, I will provide my criticism of his argument and explain why I don’t think he succeeds in establishing a cogent relationship between the underlying elements of his arguments to suggest wokeism is definable in relation to critical constructivism. Lastly, I will provide my own thoughts on the matter and why I believe the best and simplest way to understand wokeism is a modified version of John McWhorter’s position as detailed in his book Woke Racism. I will assume the reader is familiar with a colloquial understanding of what 'being woke' entails from the perspective of both advocates and critics.

What is critical constructivism?

Critical constructivism, as I understand it, is an educational philosophy that blends elements of constructivism and critical theory. Constructivism in this context is a learning theory that suggests learners construct their own knowledge of the world through experiences and reflecting on these experiences. This is often tied to standpoint epistemology, which holds that knowledge of the world is predicated on personal experience. Combined with critical theory, which involves investigating and challenging power structures, ideologies, and social inequalities that influence society, critical constructivism encourages individuals to reflect on their own experiences and how they can enact social reform to dismantle structures that lead to inequality.

Critical constructivism is in the same family of educational theories as transformational learning theory, which has been introduced into K-12 education under the guise of promoting “equity” in education.

Wokeism defined as critical constructivism

Lindsay seeks to establish the position that wokeism is deeply rooted in critical constructivism, such that they are one and the same. The nexus for Lindsay is critical pedagogy, another educational theory that seeks to apply critical theory to education directly. “The point of critical pedagogy is to use education not just to [educate] but to raise a critical consciousness in students,” Lindsay argues. “That is, its purpose is to make them ‘Woke.’ What does that entail, though? It means becoming a critical constructivist.”

Next, Lindsay connects critical pedagogy to the intellectual movements post-World War II. He believes critical pedagogy is a synthesis of critical Marxism and postmodernism, highlighting the particular interpretations of Herbert Marcuse (critical Marxism) and Michel Foucault (postmodernism). Crediting Jordan Peterson for first identifying this nexus of wokeism with what Peterson calls “postmodern neo-Marxism,” Lindsay maintains this merger of opposites as the foundation for critical constructivism.

In other words, when [Peterson] identified what we now call “Woke” as “postmodern neo-Marxism,” he was exactly right. It was neo-Marxist critique that had taken a postmodern turn away from realism and reality. The right name for that is “critical constructivism.” Critical constructivism contains (or synthesizes) two disparate parts: “critical,” which refers to Critical Theory (that is, neo-Marxism or Critical Marxism), and “constructivism,” which refers to the constructivist thinking at the heart of postmodernism and poststructuralism.

With this foundation in place to suggest critical pedagogy is the synthesis of critical Marxism and postmodernism (specifically poststructuralism), which rolls up into critical constructivism as the ontology of wokeism, Lindsay moves quickly to cement this newfound insight.

Lindsay performs a brief concept analysis of the term ‘critical constructivism’ in order to deconstruct its meaning. He contends that constructivism is rooted in the idea that the world is socially constructed. Lindsay now positions himself as a realist to maintain an incompatibility argument between constructivism and realism. Citing his antagonist, Joe Kincheloe, Lindsay emphasizes that Kincheloe holds the belief that nothing exists before perception, suggesting that this entails an objective shared reality doesn’t exist under constructivism. He then blends in a fashionable idea from poststructuralism popularized by Foucault that there is no reality except the perception of reality, and the perception of reality is constructed by power. From this, he draws the conclusion that woke practitioners believe “we all inhabit our own ‘lived realities’ that are shaped by power dynamics that primarily play out on the group level, hence the need for ‘social justice’ to make power equitable among and across groups.”

Reuniting this interpretation of constructivism with critical theory, Lindsay further contends that “critical constructivism is a hermetically sealed ideological worldview (a cult worldview) that claims a monopoly on interpretation of the world by virtue of its capacity to call anything that challenges it an unjust application of self-serving dominant power.”

Lastly, Lindsay ends his exposition by arguing that perception from the lens of critical constructivism, combined with personalized interpretation of reality, is held to be a more faithful description of reality than empirical fact or logical consistency. This allows the critical constructivist to privilege their interpretation of reality as having a more solid footing in subjectivity. Lindsay contends that critical constructivists hold knowledge as subjective and yet objective at the same time. He also believes that this is a derivative consequence of the “Hegelian/Marxist dialectic that critical constructivism imports wholesale.” This is meant to bring his claims full circle to wokeism in order to convey that a more comprehensive definition of wokeism is critical constructivism.

Why this definition of wokeism doesn’t work

Lindsay and I share the same sentiment concerning wokeism. Like him, I find its development to be problematic because it has become an identitarian movement. Consequently, many of the woke practitioners don’t believe issues can be talked out; rather, they insist on seeking group solidarity and fighting out ideological differences based on a metanarrative that maintains social structures are necessarily the product of groups competing for power. Based on current social trends, this has been a clear destructive force on matters concerning healthy political discourse, freedom of speech at universities, and education. Here, Lindsay and I are in alignment.

Additionally, Lindsay correctly identifies the deeper influence critical Marxism and postmodernism have on wokeism, albeit through the influence of critical pedagogy. While I have some objections to the wholesale use of “postmodern neo-Marxist” and the extent to which Marxism and postmodernism play an influence, the connection to wokeism is undeniable.

While we agree on the problematic nature of wokeism and its relationship to other cultural-academic movements in Marxism and postmodernism, we diverge in important ways on the meaning of wokeism and what its relationship to Marxism and postmodernism entails. Consequently, these differences are not trivial and illuminate that his attempt to define wokeism as critical constructivism is flawed if the aim is to give a clear and concrete idea of what wokeism entails. Its connection to critical constructivism is ultimately post hoc reasoning, as the origin of the concept ‘woke’ was not the product of academia like critical constructivism. Lindsay misses the fact that woke—an awareness of injustice—was co-opted by academics and forced to fit into a critical Marxist paradigm through a cultural isomorphism between “being woke” and critical race theory.

The co-opted view that is now wokeism can only be said to be a third or fourth-order derivative of Marxism. Lindsay misses the fact that Marxism has been in decline since the early 1900s. For starters, Marx’s philosophical and economic theories were dropped by 20th-century prominent thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno. Later, Marx’s political theories would also be rejected due to many learning about the horrors of living in Soviet Russia under Stalin and communist China under Mao. What these later students of Marx, like Jürgen Habermas, held on to was Marx’s critical analysis of class structure. By the time these ideas came to America, Marxism had mostly been reduced to an academic narrative of negation and critique of capitalist societies. Hence, contemporary Marxists like Richard Wolff are relegated to alternative analyses of economic systems through a Marxist lens.

It was a derivative of Marxism that took hold in American academies. Critical theory was born from critical Marxists like Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, and others from a desire to give Marx’s ideas of negation a sense of legitimacy that could rival other schools of thought. This particular school was called the Frankfurt School. Critical theory is a philosophical approach to culture, literature, and society that seeks to confront the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures that produce them in order to reveal the power dynamics and ideologies that underpin society and to provide a framework for achieving social change.

Marcuse brought these ideas with him to America, where they were adapted to the particular cultural dynamism of the mid-1900s. The Harvard School produced a variant of critical theory called critical race theory (CRT). CRT was a legal technique formulated and popularized by Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado to confront what they saw as social and historical forces based on racism and the structures it produces in order to reveal racial power dynamics and racial discrimination that underpin American society and to provide a framework for achieving social change.

Outside of academic halls, there was what was called “being woke,” which was simply an awareness of racial injustice and inequality. This was more of a vernacular style of expression in the mid-1900s, but it took on a definitive meaning in the 2010s following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of Trayvon Martin. Consequently, “woke” and CRT became somewhat synonymous after 2013, with academics like Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Nikole Hannah-Jones starting to co-opt what McWhorter calls third-wave antiracism to advance a new sociopolitical agenda. This would ultimately take the form of antiracist programs like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It is at this point that academics hijacked the narrative of “being woke,” and it became colloquially known as wokeism.

Additionally, wokeism infuses elements of postmodernism as a means to counter historical and social facts. We see this in works like the 1619 Project, which offers a revision of American history to fit contemporary rhetoric. This manifests as a critique of language rather than a rejection of reality, as Lindsay contends. Hence, we have seen universities adopt an anti-free speech posture to protect from criticism of their rebranding from being institutions that seek truth to being ones that pursue an obscure vision of “social justice.”

Woke practitioners will argue that freedom of language is the mechanism of oppression towards marginalized groups. Freedom of speech is seen as the primary threat to achieving the agenda of seizing power over social institutions in order to advance its metanarrative of “systemic racism” and the necessity of antiracist policies. This pivot towards institutional hegemony in the form of DEI programs in order to establish its metanarrative as the primary lens to construct reality from a position of power is its objective, not to facilitate an anti-realist paradigm shift to reconstitute our understanding of reality as innately socially constructed as Lindsay would have us believe.

To understand why Lindsay falls back on this claim that wokeism (or critical pedagogy by extension) shares a deep connection to postmodernism, despite the fact that wokeism is rooted in Marxism, which is a totalizing metanarrative, and postmodernism is diametrically opposed to totalizing grand narratives, we have to understand how this philosophical and cultural movement formed.

Postmodernism is a catchall term that generally means anti-modernism. Modernism was a philosophical movement that sought to establish a foundation for all knowledge in order to have a clear and distinct idea of what was true. Science was solidified during this philosophical age as the supreme means by which humans can understand the world. Not only were we able to understand how things worked, but we could also even predict outcomes through the scientific method. Many modernists believed science was going to be the skeleton key for achieving Truth.

However, modernism was undermined by its own success. This ability to predict phenomena made it so that faith became superfluous. This loss of faith is what inspired Nietzsche’s famous line, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Nietzsche aptly argued that Truth was tied to God and faith. And with God removed from the equation, Truth was no longer possible to achieve. The horizon was wiped away, and we found ourselves falling in all directions. Many scholars believe Nietzsche is a proto-postmodernist because his perspectivism became the catalyst for relativism that would take hold in the 20th century and inspired prominent postmodern thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Gilles Deleuze.

It is often missed by critics of postmodernism that what these thinkers oppose are metanarratives that claim to know Truth. I don’t get the sense that Lindsay appreciates this nuance. However, Lindsay correctly identifies what this means in practice, which is that “we all inhabit our own ‘lived realities.’” If there is no Truth in the world to speak of, then what we are left with are personal narratives about what constitutes truth. An example of the type of anti-realism Lindsay is referring to can be seen with Jacques Derrida and his deconstructionist approach.

Derrida argues we cannot access anything beyond the text and that everything in language engenders a text-to-text relationship for which we cannot claim that language innately corresponds to objective reality. Everything, according to Derrida, is about context, and if one fails to understand the context, then they fail to understand the meaning of language in that moment.

However, Lindsay incorrectly attributes anti-realism to Hegel and Marx—and ultimately wokeism. Hegel, following Kant, holds a philosophical view that is a form of indirect realism. For Hegel, human rationality maps onto reality, which allows us to interface with Geist. Geist, translated from German, means mind or spirit. The Geist for Hegel embodies total reality, but we as human beings can only access it through reason. At the end of history, as our reason unfolds through the dialectic process, Hegel argues, our reason synthesizes with reality, and we know Geist through “absolute freedom.”

In contrast, Marx is a materialist and believes Hegel’s transcendental philosophy to be mystic hogwash. Accordingly, Marx is a direct realist because he assumes the world is all there is, albeit he offers us an interpretation of realism that is predicated on the dialectic process of opposing social forces that create class structures, e.g., master and slave, feudal lord and serf, bourgeoisie and proletariat, etc. When viewed through the lens of race, this can be interpreted as black and white.

With truth removed from the scene, cultural relativism quickly took hold of society in the late 1900s and peaked in the early 2000s. Ironically, some little narratives sought to establish themselves as the master narrative. Wokeism is one such narrative. It uses the postmodern critical stance against language to mount offensives against other truths, suggesting they are masquerading as Trojan horses of the old metanarratives of modernism, now contextualized as “white privilege” or “anti-black,” seeking to assert control over society and oppress historically marginalized voices. Here, one can see elements of postmodernism being incorporated into wokeism as a critique of language it finds a threat to its sociopolitical ambitions. Lindsay and I don’t have a disagreement on these facts. However, we disagree on motivation, which is why it is a non-trivial disagreement.

Lindsay wants to maintain some deeper relationship to Marxism and postmodernism through critical pedagogy, which in turn becomes the nexus to say wokeism is critical constructivism. I just don’t see woke practitioners deeply involved in esoteric ideas like critical theory and poststructuralism. They have a superficial understanding of Marxism as it is, which suggests to me that they are merely borrowing ideas as a means to an end.

Here, Lindsay would suggest that the endpoint is anti-realism, and I believe this is a flawed position to hold. The fact that woke practitioners have methodically sought organizational and political power and, upon achieving that goal, quickly moved to suppress freedom of speech, points to classic totalitarianism, which is the aim of all identitarian movements. Accordingly, the endpoint is not anti-realism but rather the power to establish oneself as a priestly member of society with special access to a totalized grand narrative.

Wokeism as a quasi-religion    

McWhorter’s understanding of wokeism is perhaps the best coherent definition of the identitarian movement, which he argues is akin to an emerging religion. In order for wokeism to be successful, it needs large-scale conversion programs to prime emerging generations and force established ones to commit to its antiracist pedagogy and be, ironically, uncritical of its doctrines. To be critical in this case entails cancellation, being outed to your employer under false accusations, and attempts to isolate the individual from their family, friends, and community, thereby harming their psychological and physical well-being. These threats are used to silence critics and force self-censorship on individuals who may disagree with the identitarian movement. Moreover, these conversion programs take the form of DEI training in social institutions, government, and professional training seminars. What makes this so profoundly problematic is not that individuals believe this is one way to help historically marginalized groups achieve social mobility, but rather it is advocated as the only way to do so, and to do otherwise is heretical.

Woke practitioners are not analytical believers in an idea that has potential to work. They are dogmatic true believers aggressively seeking opportunities to spread their gospel. However, I would modify McWhorter’s definition to suggest that wokeism is a quasi-religious doctrine that wants the adherence found in a religion but the perception that its ideas are rooted in secularism.

Wokeism wants individuals to uncritically believe that society is structured around racism, which leads to “systemic racism.” To address “systemic racism,” specific individuals must be in positions of power to steer policies toward addressing the “structural inequities” found in institutions, businesses, and law. Therefore, these organizations need to establish DEI programs to design and implement policies that police hiring practices, determine promotions, and decide who gets a seat at the decision-making table.

In the case of education, wokeism employs CRT or CRT-like approaches to prime teachers and students about “structural inequities” caused by “systemic racism.” Accordingly, little Johnny doesn’t do well in school not because he doesn’t study, his home life is a mess, or he lives in a crime-ridden neighborhood, but because his poor performance and behavior are products of “structural inequities” caused by “systemic racism.” Never mind that this is the condition of many children in America regardless of the color of their skin.

In the domain of politics, wokeism seeks to ensure that policies and regulations protect their particular brand of dogmatism by law. If this cannot be achieved through the legislative branch of government, wokeism will advocate for it in the executive and judicial branches through favorable execution or interpretation of the law.

One should quickly sense why wokeism requires that its practitioners, despite their critical stance toward society, must remain uncritical of their own pedagogy. If they applied the same critical analysis to themselves, they would see that wokeism in organizations seeks positions of power, wokeism in education seeks to ensure its narrative is deeply rooted in the minds of emerging generations, and wokeism in government seeks to secure favorable laws to continue its mechanism of social conversion. If this approach is criticized, wokeism goes full-on identitarian and attempts to force its will to power through political activism. Accordingly, wokeism is a quasi-religion seeking to establish itself as an influential structure in society. Thus, all this business of addressing “systemic racism” and “structural inequities” is performative. The aim is sociopolitical power.

When Lindsay delves too deeply into these academic ideas to define wokeism, he misses the mark on what the idea engenders. Certainly, it is interesting to see how all these ideas have the potential to be connected, but I think that ultimately it is a distraction from what is really going on. Simply put, wokeism is a quasi-religion that seeks power to ensure its practitioners hold influential positions in society. At best, it is race hustling par excellence that doesn’t concern itself with the negative consequences it has on diverse societies like America. At worst, it is another race-based identitarian movement masquerading as social justice.

In either case, one is justified in opposing wokeism on the basis that it has become an identitarian movement seeking to impose its worldview on others and suppress alternative discourses by limiting freedom of speech to prevent criticism of its pedagogy. Regardless of how Lindsay and I perceive wokeism, I think we can both agree on this position.

Continue Reading

Read More