Many casual observers of the cultural war were caught by surprise when wokeism seemed to have sprung from nowhere during the annus horribilis that was 2020. Others recognized that it had been percolating on college campuses for years. This has led to some dispute over the origins of the term “woke” and its eponymous movement, with most pundits settling on the fairly recent past. But the spirit and psychology of wokeism, as well as its central metaphor, have been around for well over a century. Wokeism comes from 19th-century anarchism.
The term, if not the idea, is often credited to pop star Erykah Badu who sang “I Stay Woke” in a 2008 song titled “Master Teacher.” Merriam-Webster tells us that “woke’s transformation into a byword of social awareness likely started in 2008, with the release of Erykah Badu’s song.”
Others believe that the Hippies popularized the idea in the 1960s after co-opting it from the Beatniks, who themselves co-opted it from the slang terminology of Black jazz musicians. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the term to William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 article “If You’re Not Woke You Dig It; No mickey mouse can be expected to follow today’s Negro idiom without a hip assist. If You’re Woke You Dig It.” Others still find the origin of woke in 1940s labor union rhetoric, in particular an essay by J. Saunders Redding published in the first volume (1942) of Negro Digest. Nearly everyone agrees that the term stems from the black experience in America.
These, however, are only partial or one-dimensional examples of either the language or ideology of wokeism. Crediting Badu focuses on linguistic parallels, and crediting the Hippies focuses on ideological parallels. But even these are inapt, as Badu’s song is at least in part a love song, and the Hippie slogan “Tune in, turn on and drop out” (via Timothy Leary) advocated a retreat from, rather than a transformation of, the status quo. And as Nicolaus Mills points out, Kelley’s essay is “a work of cultural description rather than a battle cry.” But the anarchist movement of the 19th century incorporates all dimensions — linguistic, ideological, and polemic — of the movement now upon us.
Long before the 1940s labor disputes, the Beatniks, or the Hippies, the political metaphor of sleeping and waking was at the core of the pre-revolutionary Russian propaganda disseminated by the self-described terrorist group, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). The origins of what many now call the “Great Awokening” can be plainly seen in the ideas of a handful of thinkers who developed and directed what historian David C. Rapoport calls the first wave of modern terrorism — the Anarchist wave.
The parallels between early European socialism (1840-1880) and today are numerous. Dissatisfied with capitalism, agitators sought to convince the people to rise up and overthrow governments and the privileged classes who supported them. But they were frustrated with their inability to persuade the masses who were unaware of their oppression. The agitators were ambivalent towards the masses, recognizing that they needed “the people” for their revolution but also hating them for not having already joined the revolution of their own volition. John Most, the German anarchist exiled to France, then England, then America, described them as “swells and other fat-faced philistines … happy in this stage of unfreedom as pigs in muck.”
People needed to be convinced that their lives were miserable, and too many of them, the anarchists believed, were blissfully unaware of their plight. So the metaphor was born: the people are sleeping fools in need of an awakening.
This is the same metaphor at the heart of wokeism. As one woke writer for the very woke Guardian defines it, “The essence of woke is awareness. What you are newly aware of (a pay gap, systemic racism, unchecked privilege, etc.) and what to do with that newfound knowledge is the question… you’ve answered that wakeup call, pushed your way out of bed and are now listening.”
The 19th-century anarchists believed that people would wake up and listen if they were shown that the system of morality they accepted was corrupt, that they had been victimized, and that revolution was the only answer. The anarchists wanted to be Morpheus, offering only a red pill.
Marx’s rival, Mikhail Bakunin, complained that “the whole world of working peasants sleep what seems to be a sleep with no awakening, crushed by the whole burden of the state” (emphasis mine, here and in all subsequent quotations). Bakunin’s metaphor of a “sleep with no awakening” is qualified by “seems” — that is, the sleep is not permanent. The sleepers can be awakened. But how?
Pyotr Kropotkin, a prince who turned his back on the aristocracy and gave up his title, also used the metaphor. He described Russian society as a decadent one in which all “political, economic and social institutions are crumbling,” and he longed for “a revolutionary whirlwind which will sweep away all this rottenness.” To Kropotkin, it was obvious that “such periods demand revolution,” but less obvious was how to make the masses see it. Traditional forms of propaganda were no longer relevant, he wrote, due to the failures of “cautious theoreticians,” or as another anarchist, Serge Nechaev, called them, “idle word spillers.”
Something new was required to jolt the people from their sleep. Since traditional propaganda had failed, they came up with “propaganda by deed,” (or “direct action” in later parlance). And the deeds were by necessity violent — explosions and assassinations directed against the government.
Another member of the Narodnaya Volya, who used the names G. Tarnovski and G. Romanenko, wrote that the necessary violence would at first confuse the masses, but soon, “confusion changes to jeers and anger directed against the despot and it moves to sympathize with the revolution.” He believed that the violence would have a purifying effect, and when “the suffering of the people is ended, the meaning of the revolt will crystallize. It will become more intelligible to the public consciousness and will educate the people to despise despotism” and eventually “arouse the Russian common man to fight for political freedom.”
Kropotkin concurred that only acts of violence could wake the masses, for “one such act may, in a few days, make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets … it awakens the spirit of revolt.” And success breeds success because once an act of anarchist violence leads to “the smallest concession of the governing classes, since it comes too late, since it has been snatched in struggle, only awakes the revolutionary spirit still more.”
To serve as role models for inspirational violence, the anarchists formed vanguard groups, designed to lead by example and wake the people from their sleep. In Bakunin’s terminology, it was the fearless Russian bandit, “the people’s hero, defender and savior,” whose violence against state officials would rouse and inspire the sleeping peasants. Bakunin preached patience as the “world of bandits in the forests carries on its desperate fight and battles on until at last the Russian villages awake.”
Nikolai Morozov, who left the Narodnaya Volya to form his own group which he called the Terrorist Brigades, also mythologized the power of the vanguard, “a handful of people, insignificant as to numbers but strong and terrible in their energy and elusiveness.”
Kropotkin called these role models, “Men of courage, not satisfied with words, but ever searching for the means to transform them into action … the lonely sentinels who enter the battle long before the masses are sufficiently roused to raise openly the banner of insurrection.”
The Russian anarchists of the 19th century invented the term “terrorism,” reveled in the name, and proudly called themselves “terrorists.” Serge Stepniak-Kravchinski, who assassinated the head of the Russian secret police in 1878, used the woke metaphor throughout Underground Russia (1883), for instance writing that terrorism was “conceived in hatred, nurtured by patriotism and by hope … [and] grew up in an electrical atmosphere, impregnated with the enthusiasm awakened by an act of heroism.”
Stepniak, as he was usually called, argued that a single impactful event could provide an alarm sufficient to awaken the masses into an unstoppable revolution. He believed Russia was fortunate to have two such inspirational events — war with Turkey and the acquittal of Vera Zasulich, a Narodnaya Volya member who famously shot a police commander, threw the revolver to the ground, and shouted “I am a terrorist, not a murderer.” The combination of the two, Stepniak wrote, had a transformative result: “The Liberals awoke from their dreams. It was then that they turned in despair to the only party which was struggling against despotism, the Socialist party.”
Wokeism’s goal to inspire a revolutionary awakening depends on subverting morality. The televised killing of George Floyd and a summer of protests provided plenty of despair for today’s self-fashioned vanguards to capitalize on, which they did in often violent ways.
Last June, New York City BLM co-founder Walter “Hawk” Newsome warned on Fox News that “If this country doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it. All right? And I could be speaking figuratively. I could be speaking literally. It’s a matter of interpretation.” A Chicago BLM organizer, Ariel Atkins, enthused, “Winning has come through revolts. Winning has come through riots.”
Another BLM voice, the much-celebrated activist Shaun King, tweeted during the Kenosha, Wisconsin riots last year, “Nah. I’m not going to call for peace. We’ve tried peace. For years. Y’all don’t understand that language …We are calling for a complete dismantling of American policing. It’s NOT broken. It was built to work this way. And mayhem is the consequence. You earned it.”
These agitators’ rhetorical choices are only a few short steps from Bakunin’s conclusion that “it is considerably more humane to stab and strangle dozens, nay hundreds, of hated beings than to join with them to share in systematic legal acts of murder.” This is the road down which anarchist rhetoric leads. If the system is deliberately, “systemically” immoral, the moral thing to do is to tear it down.
Perhaps the biggest cultural difference influencing the choices of anarchists past and present is that anarchism was shunned by most of 19th-century European society, whereas American society either fails to recognize today’s anarchists as anarchists, or it accepts them as a positive “force for change.”
Today’s woke anarchists are emulating the rhetoric and psychology of their predecessors, but they also seem to have grasped the failures of the past and are trying to avoid repeating the path to self-defeat.
In 1861, the Tsar Alexander II acquiesced to the anarchists’ demands for reform. He agreed to free the serfs, change the educational system, and loosen state censorship. He even approved new experiments in limited regional self-government (the “autonomous zones” of the day). But the anarchists were unable to comprehend and appreciate their victories, and so they pressed on, ultimately assassinating the Tsar and bringing about their own destruction in a subsequent backlash against them.
The best minds behind wokeism understand that education is where their battle will be won or lost. The earlier they can begin inculcating hatred of the country, the more success they will achieve.
BLM activist Tiffany Jewell understands this fact, as evidenced by her New York Times bestselling children’s book titled This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do The Work.
Kropotkin believed it both natural and inevitable that Russia’s youth would reject the values of their parents. His description of that alleged rejection is almost gleeful: “The son struggles against his father, he finds revolting what his father has all his life found natural. The daughter rebels against the principles which her mother has handed down to her as the result of long experience.” Bakunin prayed the prayer of the anarchists: “So may all healthy young minds forthwith set themselves to the sacred cause of rooting out evil, purifying and clearing Russia’s soil by sword and fire, and join fraternally with those who will do likewise throughout Europe.” But today’s wokesters aren’t taking any chances with nature or prayers.
Those who see their role as spreading the woke revolution are targeting young minds through the education system. Nowhere is this more evident than in Portland. As Christopher Rufo points out in City Journal, most of the Portland area schools (K-12) have “implemented a revolutionary program — pedagogy, praxis, power — explicitly against the regime of the U.S. Constitution … indoctrinating these children in a profoundly pessimistic world view, in which racism and oppression pervade every institution, with no way out but revolution.”
Their success was demonstrated on the day Joe Biden was inaugurated when Portland’s youth put on another of their famous “peaceful” protests, marching with banners reading, “WE DON’T WANT BIDEN — WE WANT REVENGE! FOR POLICE MURDERS IMPERIALIST WARS AND FASCIST MASSACRES.” They also vandalized the Democratic Party headquarters and a police station.
By subverting morality, depicting America as systemically racist, portraying law and order as evil, and fomenting violence against police and anyone who is not part of their movement, today’s wokesters are showing their anarchist roots. It’s possible that they are turning off far more people than they are waking, and recent stories about children being told to hide social-justice lessons from their parents suggest that the educators fear a backlash against them. But as long as the woke control school boards, own the teachers’ unions, and thoroughly dominate higher education, the unwoke will be playing catch up in a contest I fear is lost.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is also a Ginsburg-Milstein fellow.