Christopher Rufo is the American right’s man on fire. Perhaps no person has done more than Rufo to expose the true aim of identity politics and its enforcement arm, the diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) project: the abolition of American life. In Rufo’s telling, DEI wants to replace bourgeois America with a socialist, racialist, gender-potato-head regime backed by the federal and state governments, enforced through corporations and media, and extending its tentacles into every benighted cave of society. Totalitarian visions demand nothing less than a complete repudiation of the structures and substructures of society per Marxist analysis, and in America’s case, those structures that manipulate people into serving a racist, sexist, white, heterosexual, male power system. A filmmaker and journalist, Rufo’s reporting and writing have always connected readers to the emotional resonance of DEI and critical race theory’s (CRT) consequences, and the ruined cities, institutions, careers, and lives left in its wake.
Rufo’s new book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, gives an account of how we got CRT, DEI, Black Lives Matter (BLM), and all manner of related pathologies. He aims “to understand the ideology that drives the politics of the modern Left, from the streets of Seattle to the highest levels of American government.” This is ambitious intellectual history, an outline of “the progression of left-wing ideology from the student radical movement of the 1960s to the so-called anti-racism movement, which set fire to the country in 2020.”
Who can gainsay the thought that pulling down statues of American statesmen and warriors, denigrating our framers and the Constitution, and casting aspersions on the bourgeois work ethic and the nuclear family, among other attacks launched by identity politics, amounts to a revolution? As Rufo observes, “The country’s foundations are starting to shake loose. A new nihilism is beginning to surround the common citizen in all of the institutions that matter: his government, his workplace, his church, his children’s school, even his home.” The American republic is “a gift,” but “there is no guarantee that it will last.” The everyman “can feel it in his bones.”
What the everyman senses is the replacement of “individual rights with group-identity-based rights,” “a scheme of race-based wealth redistribution,” and suppressing “speech, based on a new racial and political calculus.” According to Rufo, we were invaded by Marxist-inspired thought in the form of Herbert Marcuse, a German and member of the Frankfurt School, who arrived to teach in American universities in the 1960s. He had become the leading light of the New Left, stating at a 1967 “Dialectics of Liberation” conference in London that “sexual, moral and political rebellion” must be completed, along with “the abolition of labor,” “the termination of the struggle for existence,” and “the transition from capitalism to socialism.” Members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, among other delightful terrorist types, read him thoroughly, Rufo notes. His ideas infected the radical students of the period. His principle was “the Great Refusal,” or “the complete disintegration of the existing society, beginning with a revolt in the universities and the ghettos.” Marcuse’s critical theory would then undermine the foundations of liberal society. Rufo argues that Marcuse’s writings were meant to foment revolution in four ways: “revolt of the affluent white intelligentsia, the radicalization of the black ‘ghetto population,’ the capture of public institutions, and the cultural repression of the opposition.” Much of this has been realized.
Marcuse, among other leftist thinkers, began tailoring the politics of revolution in the 20th century, identifying the working class as a well-adjusted member of the capitalist structure of society and so unlikely to be a part of any revolution. In its place, the era of “late-capitalism” presented new candidates for socialist revolution, Marcuse observed. One group was the black urban class, which could be teamed with the rising white intellectual class, which was heavily disposed against the current structure of American life. The possibilities for overturning things ranged beyond class, and included race, sexuality, and ultimately, per Marcuse’s appropriation of Nietzsche, “the transvaluation of all prevailing values.”
Marcuse justified revolutionary violence and anti-democratic tactics to advance leftist objectives. He also encouraged radicals to get inside universities, schools, media, and various government arms, “working against the established institutions while working in them.” In this way they could control the “great chains of information and indoctrination” and initiate the “vast task of political education.” In this patient work, the establishment would be broken and the “transition to large-scale political action” would become possible.
As an example: Marcuse trained Angela Davis in graduate school. Her career and life personified the revolutionary terror that Marcuse had invoked. Davis’ academic writings and her lectures and speeches preview the anti-American, anti-racist, and intersectionality core that now forms identity politics in America. She justified violence “as a means of seizing power from the oppressor.” Moreover, “We cannot begin to effectively destroy racism until we’ve destroyed the whole system,” and the system that needed to be destroyed was the American one.
Davis narrowly escaped conviction for being an accomplice to murder for a notorious incident in 1970 at the Marin County Hall of Justice, where three San Quentin inmates revolted during a hearing, along with Jonathan Jackson in the gallery, who produced a pistol and a M1 carbine. They managed to take a judge, district attorney, and three jurors hostage. Davis had purchased the firearms for the event and been involved in the planning. The judge would die in an ensuing gun battle, along with three of the four hostage takers, with the jurors and district attorney surviving. Davis had been waiting for the militants at San Francisco International Airport, but quickly flew to Los Angeles and went into hiding after things had turned violent. She entered that new status in American life, the leftist celebrity, persecuted for wanting a better America. Davis would be tried for her crimes but found not guilty as prosecutors failed to tie her directly to the murders.
In time, Davis’ public appeal dimmed dramatically. She ran as vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1979 but received only 45,000 votes. Her real work, however, was in the academy, holding positions at UCLA, Rutgers, Claremont, Syracuse, Vassar, San Francisco State University, San Francisco Art Institute, and at University of California, Santa Cruz. Rufo notes the obvious: the platform she sought as a graduate student of racial quotas, critical theory, Marxist ideology, “white studies,” and studies on colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and genocide has become university boilerplate. Was Davis the cause of all these ideological pathologies finding their way into the course catalog? What can be said is that her career and biography embodied the revolutionary framework. And it’s that framework that is now orthodoxy in most universities, filling curricula and providing a need for legions of administrators to agitate for mandated compliance with DEI edicts and attendant brainwashing sessions. The sheer fact that the academy embraced a violent Marxist criminal who hated her country and Western civilization surely indicates that the rot had already set into these institutions and that the consequences for the country would be realized in time. This is what we are living through now.
Rufo writes about two other leftist academic power players: Paulo Freire, a Marxist-Stalinist and Maoist-praising Brazilian intellectual, and Derrick Bell, professor at Harvard Law School. Both men exerted an astonishing measure of influence in their respective ways, emanating from Cambridge to the rest of the country. Freire would come to Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1969 and introduce a pedagogy of “critical Marxism” into American education. The former leader of education enforcement in the African communist state of Guinea-Bissau, Freire viewed education as the attempt to raise the consciousness of the people and liberate them. He was expelled from Brazil because of his communist revolutionary views, and he left Guinea-Bissau students as he found them, illiterate. It was America, in its colleges of education, and later in the primary and secondary education system, that would come to breathe in Freire’s pedagogy.
What can be said of Derrick Bell and the critical race theory his students and disciples would spawn that isn’t already evident in an endless array of DEI indoctrination sessions? Bell, the professor that student Barack Obama praised as a man of “truth” at a rally in Bell’s honor, declaimed American constitutionalism and its framers, which gave us a “slave history of the Constitution.” There is nothing good about America, according to Bell—“racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society.” Moreover, “The racism that made slavery feasible is far from dead in the last decade of twentieth-century America.” Those promoting colorblind equality, Bell taught, only advance a new form of racism “more oppressive than ever.” Bell’s view of America is rooted in a fixed, morbid pessimism that the Constitution was the tool of white elite interests, always and forever. And its chief victims were blacks.
In two collections of short stories, And We Are Not Saved and Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Bell depicted whites as agents of depravity who rejoiced in black suffering. In one story, whites gladly paid a discrimination tax to gain a license to exclude blacks from their associations. In another, “The Space Traders,” they send the black population to outer space with alien invaders in return for the national debt to be extinguished. Beyond Bell’s vision of critical race theory stands something else, a dark and miserable hatred of America and whites. Such utter contempt is incapable of love, forgiveness, magnanimity, or the ability even to entertain the possibility that human beings and the institutions they shape can change for the better.
We might challenge aspects of Rufo’s intellectual history and note what is also working here: straightforward graft and short-term interest-seeking as profitable careers in academia, government, and university administration are created with these ideas. But the proximate causality of these ideas to the events impacting American life make rejecting Rufo’s account outright extremely difficult. We should question whether Rufo overstates the strength of his enemy, not quite grasping its fundamental weakness. While the New Left has taken many institutions in American life—media, government, large corporations, and educational institutions—its revolution remains woefully incomplete.
He says as much, observing that the New Left “in 1968 was able to initiate the process of disintegrating the old values, but it could not build a new set of values to replace them.” Those ’60s leftists underwrote violence in the form of the Black Liberation Army, the Weather Underground, and the Black Panthers, and so was rejected by American society. Many of these same leftist thinkers and activists, however, responded by turning their fire inward, rejecting outright violence and training their efforts to capture the commanding institutions of opinion and education in American society. Their nearly 50-year effort has been incredibly successful, yet remains broken.
Virtually all the institutions captured and reformed by revolutionary ideology have become unlovely and bereft of the devotion we once had for them. Higher education is surely one of the biggest examples of left-progressive power and its ultimate rage-filled impotence. Rufo nods in this direction, stating, “The universities have lost the ancient telos of knowledge, replacing it with an inferior set of values oriented toward personal identities and pathologies.” In analogous fashion, “The public schools have absorbed the principles of revolution but have failed to teach the rudimentary skills of reading and mathematics.” This is not to deny or avoid the deep-seated pathologies of identity politics and their manifestations in various institutions and the fealty they demand. But the enemy’s romantic appeal dissipates quickly upon contact. What is of grave concern is how leading institutions approve or wink in the direction of the revolutionaries, unlike in the late 1960s, when most of our major institutions disapproved of their methods and objectives.
Unlike much of conservative writing on these dismal subjects, Rufo weaves in and out of formal theory, striving to connect readers to the substance of these ideologies while driving home that DEI’s “boots on the ground” destroys and divides people within government, schools, and companies, replacing that which it denigrates with nothing but grievances and a nihilist individualism. Such negation places all meaning in race or gender, to the absolute detriment of reason, freedom, virtue, and the belief in a shared human nature that can, for example, make voluntary society not only possible but desirable for flourishing.
There can be no limits on government power if you decide that racial and gender outcomes must be equal across society. And yet America remains an open and dynamic society, one also built on a tradition of constitutionalism that should provide ample resources to meet this challenge and rebuff it. Recovering this tradition must be foundational to the “counterrevolution” that Rufo calls for in the book’s conclusion. However, if counterrevolution, which Rufo leaves underspecified, means merely to replicate the left’s fascination with power and domination with his own American-right version of a march through the institutions, then he will fail this tradition, and he will likely fail in practical result.