Christopher F. Rufo, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. New York: Broadside Books, 2023. 352 pages.

By the end of the last century, the Soviet model of revolutionary communism had been totally discredited everywhere it had been tried, and it seemed that the world had moved beyond the promises of Marx, Lenin and Mao. Except that it hadn’t, according to Christopher Rufo. In his book America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, which hit stores this summer, he claims that, over time, the cultural version of left-wing revolution found a new home in the institutions of America. But it was only with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 that it came to the surface among elites in education, the media and even big business.

I had never heard of Rufo when I encountered an article in a recent issue of the Economist that briefly summarized his ideas, noting his wide influence on the American right. I was intrigued enough to track down this book and soon understood why he has risen to prominence among American conservatives. He is very well read and writes clearly and interestingly about complex issues and ideas.

Rufo was raised by Italian immigrants in Sacramento and educated at Georgetown University. He began working as a documentary filmmaker, based in Seattle. He attracted attention when he attacked the city of Seattle in an article for City Journal, the magazine of the Manhattan Institute: “Under the banner of ‘antiracism,’ Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights is now explicitly endorsing principles of segregationism, group-based guilt, and race essentialism – ugly concepts that should have been left behind a century ago.”

The story generated leaks from civil servants who recorded and photographed their own antiracism training sessions and sent the evidence to Rufo. His reputation spread through the right-wing media, notably when Tucker Carlson became an ally and relied on him in his hour-long episode on “woke education.” His prominence has brought many thousands to his tip line, culled by an assistant. It took off in July 2020, when an employee of the city of Seattle sent him a video of a documented antibias training session.

Rufo ends his book with a call for a counteroffensive in the war of ideas to expose the nature of this ideology and how it operates within institutions. It would be easy to write off his claims, but it would be a mistake to do so. Rufo has done his homework, gathering and synthesizing in one place the existing evidence that supports those claims. His portrayal gives coherence to the “new right” interpretation of ongoing events that can be seen on Fox News and other media outlets, in think tanks on the right and among contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, Ron DeSantis in particular. In campaigning for the Republican nomination, Florida’s governor said he would “slit throats” in the federal bureaucracy by eliminating four federal agencies – the departments of Education, Commerce and Energy and the Internal Revenue Service – if elected president.

Rufo’s call for a cultural counteroffensive is being applied to Florida’s New College, the progressive public liberal arts school singled out by DeSantis for cultural transformation. New College ended gender studies and is setting up new majors in finance, communications and sports psychology. Appointed by DeSantis to its board of trustees, Rufo announced that it would be “the first public university in America to begin rolling back the encroachment of gender ideology and queer theory on its academic offerings,” a demonstration project to be replicated by red states nationwide.

The four prophets

The question of left-wing revolution was suddenly reopened. But to explain it, to understand the “dizzying cultural changes that have swept across the United States in the Black Lives Matter street revolution, the spread of racialist ideology in public education, and the rise of the ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ bureaucracy,” this book sets out to trace these ideas back to their origins in the student uprisings, urban riots and revolutionary violence of 1968 that provided “the template” for everything that followed. In this period, left-wing intellectuals developed a new theory of revolution in the West and their most dedicated disciples printed pamphlets, detonated homemade bombs and dreamed of overthrowing the state. As Rufo puts it, his goal is to “to reveal the inner history of America’s cultural revolution, tracing the arc of its development from its origin point to the present day.”

The book is divided into four parts: revolution, race, education and power. Each part begins with a biographical portrait of a prophet of the revolution: Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire and Derrick Bell (I admit that Bell, like Rufo, was new to me). These figures established the disciplines of critical theory, critical praxis, critical pedagogy and critical race theory, which “multiplied into a hundred subdisciplines and devoured the university, the street, the school, and the bureaucracy.” These critical theories “were not designed to operate as mere abstractions. They were designed as political weapons and oriented toward the acquisition of power.”

The bulk of this book relies on long quotes from the four, beginning with Marcuse, the preeminent philosopher of the New Left, whose writings sought to mobilize the White intelligentsia and the Black ghetto as a new proletariat. Then comes Davis, Marcuse’s student, who gave immediacy to the pledge to violently overthrow the state and became the face of racial revolt in the West. Freire, a Brazilian Marxist, sought to turn schools into instruments of revolution and inspired educational reformers (I met an American guru spouting this line in all seriousness when he was an invited speaker at the Umea University Education Faculty in Sweden). Bell, a Harvard law professor, recruited a cadre of students whose mission was to spread critical race theory through elite institutions.

By using quotes, Rufo avoids positive distortions, but his selectivity allows him to provide one-sided portraits while claiming a greater consistency among the four than an objective analysis would reveal. Nevertheless, it’s worth paying attention to the concrete examples he has identified in his research on the extremes to which the application of Freire’s ideas to American schools has gone. A long chapter describes how the post–George Floyd developments in Seattle played out in “mob rule” in that city.

Having deeply penetrated local politics, the media and the bureaucracy, local radicals set up barricades and established an autonomous zone (CHAZ). They sought to abolish the police and the courts and to close jails, what Rufo describes as their Paris Commune moment. He provides a vivid description of what transpired in CHAZ, where identity (Indigenous, Black, trans women …) determined social rank and access to positions and favourable treatment while Whites were to practise decolonization rituals, and social order quickly degenerated into violence until finally police authority was reestablished.

Though CHAZ failed, its underlying ideas had found their way, as Rufo describes it, into the Seattle school district, with its 52,000 students and billion-dollar budget, of which at least $5 million goes to its race and identity programs whose several hundred employees are tasked with designing programs to counter the race-based, White supremacist society. Even math is not spared, since Western math has been used “to oppress and marginalize people and communities of colour.” Racial equity teams are sent to the schools to form educators tasked with implementing antiracist pedagogy, notably through meetings in which teachers confess and renounce their status as colonizers.

In a chapter entitled “Marxism Conquers the American Classroom,” Rufo sets out the process through which local American school authorities, most notably in California, adopted Freire’s revolutionary pedagogy.

As he describes it, California’s ethnic studies curriculum for 10,000 public schools starts from the assumption that students must be taught to “challenge racist, bigoted, discriminatory, imperialist/colonialist beliefs” and to participate in “social movements that build new possibilities for a post-racist society.” Teachers are encouraged to lead their students in Indigenous songs, chants and affirmations, including one appealing directly to Aztec gods, which, he points out, were worshipped with human sacrifice and cannibalism. In the vision statement prepared by the Board of Education, the goal is to provide a “tool for … social, economic and political change and transformation”:

During the teacher training session, the teachers were told that the settler colonialist regime exists as long as settlers are living on appropriated land and they should awaken students to the oppression and eventually destroy the dominant political regime. Ethnic studies is a requirement for graduation in California.

To achieve these goals, departments of ethnic studies were established first in the universities and then in the school districts. They also, Rufo adds, serve to provide jobs for college graduates in race and identity studies. He notes that while between 1970 and 2010 the number of students in U.S. public schools increased by 9 per cent, administrators’ numbers mushroomed by 130 per cent. Now only half their employees actually teach.

The long march through the institutions

According to Rufo, while during the 1970s the most violent elements of the New Left coalition – the Weather Underground, Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army – fell apart, “the spirit of their revolution carried on in a subtler but equally dangerous form.” The most sophisticated activists and intellectuals of the New Left initiated a new strategy, the “long march through the institutions” – out of the streets and into the universities, schools, newsrooms and bureaucracies.

They developed intricate theories along the lines of culture, race and identity and “silently rooted them into the entire range of America’s knowledge-making institutions.” The process was so gradual and bureaucratic that it largely escaped the notice of the American public, until it burst into consciousness following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. In response, there came a “stampede toward identity politics,” which was embraced by leaders in business, sports, the media and other segments of society. It surfaced notably in Florida, pitting Governor DeSantis against the beloved Disney Corporation:

These developments signaled that the New Left’s long march through the institutions has reached its endgame, installing a sanitized version of their ideas first formulated in the radical pamphlets of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army into school curricula, popular media, government policy, and corporate human resources programs, into the official ideology of America’s elite institutions, from the Ivy Leagues to the boardrooms of Walmart, Disney, Verizon, American Express, and Bank of America …

The critical theories of 1968 have turned into a substitute morality: racism is elevated into the highest principle; society is divided into a crude moral binary of “racist” and “antiracist”; and a new bureaucratic logic is required to adjudicate guilt and redistribute wealth, power, and privilege. To enforce this new orthodoxy, left-wing activists have established departments of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” across an entire stratum of the public and private bureaucracies. Allies are rewarded with status, position, and employment. Dissenters are shamed, marginalized, and sent into moral exile. The ultimate goal is still revolutionary … to replace individual rights with group-identity-based rights, enact a scheme of race-based wealth redistribution, and suppress speech, based on a new racial and political calculus. They want a “total rupture” with the existing order.

Still, despite its successful blitz through the institutions, the revolution has its limits. It cannot escape the fundamental contradictions that have plagued it since its beginning. The revolution is not a path to liberation; it is an iron cage. Although it may seem that America’s cultural revolution has entered a period of dominance, the space between its ambitions and its outcomes has left open the possibility of reversal. The intellectual movement that began in 1968 was able to initiate the process of dismantling the old values, but it could not build a new set of values to replace them. The revolution’s proponents have not been able to reorder the deeper structures of society.

Rufo’s task as counterrevolutionary is not simply to halt the movement of his adversaries but to resurrect the system of values, symbols, myths and principles that constituted the essence of the old regime, to “make the eternal principles of freedom and equality meaningful again to the common citizen … This counter-revolution is already forming and staking out the territory for the fight ahead. The question now is which vision of America will prevail and which vision will return into the void.”

The enemy vision patiently built itself in the shadows and then, after the killing of George Floyd, exploded onto the American scene with its narrative inherited from the New Left of the late sixties and seventies: America was an irredeemably racist nation; Whites constituted a permanent oppressor class; the country could be saved only through the performance of elaborate guilt rituals and the wholesale overturning of its founding principles:

All of the formative institutions – universities, schools, corporations, government agencies – repeated the revolution’s vocabulary like a mantra:“systemic racism,” “white privilege,” “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Meanwhile, in the streets, mobs of left-wing rioters expressed the ideology in physical form, toppling statues of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln and burning entire city blocks to the ground.

Buy the trees, reject the forest

As I read what he wrote, and as I write this, I have been asking: how seriously we are to take Rufo’s claims and the agenda he sets out? As readers of Inroads know, I follow American politics closely, almost obsessively. In recent years, I have tried vainly to make sense of what seem to be simply absurdities on the right. There is, however, no escaping the fact that up to 40 per cent of Americans see what is happening in their country as resulting from a conspiracy against them – the true patriots – that has penetrated and stolen the institutions of their country. Rufo’s internally consistent account, however exaggerated, gives coherence to their beliefs.

If we set aside the wider claims, we can readily appreciate the author’s diligence in tracking down and bringing to our attention details of cases that highlight the extremism that has mobilized on the left (sic) on what we might term “woke” issues. He also brings out what can only be described as the intellectual shoddiness of the positions he attacks. At the same time, we must keep in mind that Rufo, like all conspiracy theorists, however sophisticated and well-informed, has an agenda that makes him selective, excluding cases that do not fit into his narrative. In sum, with reservations we can buy the trees but reject the forest.

Although briefly attracted to Marcuse and critical theory, I soon realized that there was little practical substance in the call to mobilize the White intelligentsia and the Black ghetto as a new proletariat. The ideological continuity that Rufo portrays leading up to the Black Lives Matter street revolution, the spread of racial ideology in public education and the rise of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” bureaucracy is more than anything else in the eye of the beholder. My experience tells me that, while not entirely giving up hope for social betterment, our generation took its distance from these next waves and often called out their weaknesses despite the pressure of political correctness.

I am thus not persuaded that a movement bringing “dizzying” cultural changes that have swept across the United States has captured America’s institutions. Nevertheless, it is important to read and understand Rufo’s argument, since it synthesizes and deepens what every one of a hundred million Americans believes. Rufo’s imagined reader understands intuitively that “appeals to a new system of governance based on diversity, equity, and inclusion are a pretense for establishing a political order that is hostile to his values, even if he does not yet possess the vocabulary to pierce through the shell of euphemism and describe its essence.”

The aspiration of America’s Cultural Revolution, as Rufo puts it, is to open his eyes. It is to reveal the nature of the critical theories, to establish the facts about the new ideological regime and to prepare the grounds for revolting against it. It should also open our eyes as to what lies beneath the support for Trump, DeSantis et al., and the challenge of taking it on.

A tyrannical FBI?

Perhaps the best indicator of how people Rufo seeks to mobilize think is their attitude toward the FBI, until recently the most respected institution among patriotic Americans. Only 17 per cent of Republicans view it positively. At a hearing of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives last July 12, various Republicans issued demands to “defund the FBI” (Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia even sold T-shirts with the slogan). Below are excerpts from their questioning of Christopher Wray, the Trump-appointed head of the FBI, and before that senior political appointee in the George W. Bush Justice Department, clerk to a noted conservative judge and contributor to the Federalist Society:

Chair Jim Jordan (Ohio): “American speech is censored. Parents are called terrorists. Catholics are called radicals.”

Harriet Hageman (Wyoming): “You have personally worked to weaponize the FBI against conservatives.” The FBI is doing the “dirty work” of “mass censorship” to “suppress the First Amendment” as part of a supposed “two-tiered justice system that has been weaponized to persecute people.”

Mike Johnson (Louisiana): Your FBI “suppressed conservative-leaning free speech.”

Matt Gaetz (Florida): You are “protecting the Bidens”, “blissfully ignorant as to the Biden shakedown regime”, “whitewashing the conduct of corrupt people” and operating a “creepy personal snoop machine.”

Victoria Spartz (Indiana): You engage in “unlawful surveillance of American citizens, intimidation of American citizens … potential coverups of convenient political figures and potential setups of inconvenient political figures.”

Troy Nehls (Texas): The January 6 investigation is a “political witch hunt against the greatest president in my lifetime … more concerned about searching for and arresting grandma and grandpa for entering the Capitol building that day than pursuing the sick individuals in our society who prey on our children.”

Chip Roy (Texas): A “tyrannical FBI storming the home of an American family.”

Dan Bishop (North Carolina): The FBI is the “agent of a foreign power.”

Tom Tiffany (Wisconsin): The FBI “interfered with the elections in both 2016 and 2020.”