A short history of wokeness

Romanticism’s rejection of reason sowed the seeds of today’s woke movement.

Kevin Baldeosingh

What does it mean to be woke? Those who consider themselves woke, even if they don’t use the label, might see wokeness as an embrace of positive virtues, such as tolerance, fairness and awareness.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines woke as meaning ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism’. Urban Dictionary defines it more sarcastically as ‘the act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’.

Although the term didn’t enter the popular lexicon until around 2016, particularly thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, Dictionary.com traces its origins to a 1943 article in the Atlantic. The article quotes a black United Mine Workers official from 1940, who uses woke as a metaphor for social justice: ‘Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.’

Being woke seems to be an especially modern cultural phenomenon. But the roots of it are actually more than three centuries old, reaching back to the romantic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Romanticism was a backlash against the Enlightenment – specifically against the enthronement of reason as the supreme virtue. In The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, sociologist Colin Campbell argues that, rather than being a coherent philosophy, romanticism was characterised by a ‘dissatisfaction with the contemporary world, a restless anxiety in the face of life, a preference for the strange and the curious, a penchant for reverie and dreaming, a leaning towards mysticism and celebration of the irrational’.

The Bohemians of mid-19th century Paris were perhaps the archetypal romantics. These were usually the children of affluent middle-class parents. Paris was the centre of Europe’s bourgeoisie, which dominated both the professions and high culture. ‘The middle classes had to attain economic dominance before they were in a position to “afford” the “luxury” of Bohemia’, writes Campbell. He describes their ethos as like a religious faith, ‘a pan-psychic mysticism, or pantheism, with regard to nature at large, combined with a purely personal drama of salvation to be acted out within the confines of the self… giving rise to a tendency, on the one hand, for individuals to retreat into an introverted mysticism, and, on the other, for the drama of redemption to be projected on to society, if not the world at large.’

The next romantic movement came in the 20th century. The two world wars set the stage. Old barbarities prosecuted with new weapons seemed to provide irrefutable evidence of the evils of civilisation that Rousseau had warned about 200 years before. This, in turn, facilitated the rise of postmodernism within the academy. Starting in France in the 1960s, postmodernism became ensconced in North American and British universities in the two decades that followed. Political correctness then came from postmodernism. It first emerged in the 1970s and, though it was widely derided at the time, its impact was unmistakable.

Political correctness did far more than just replace words like ‘chairman’ with ‘chairperson’. It was instrumental in dumbing down Western education. In The Language Police, historian of education Diane Ravitch traces the deleterious effects of PC on textbook content. Publishers kowtowed to all manner of interest groups, from the religious right to feminists and advocates for multiculturalism. Publishers combined ‘left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism’, she writes, propounding the left and the right’s visions of the ideal society: ‘Censors on the right aim to restore an idealised vision of the past, an Arcadia of happy family life… Censors from the left believe in an idealised vision of the future, a utopia in which egalitarianism prevails in all social relations.’

PC was based on the postmodern, mystical belief that naming something is what gives it power. PC censors subscribed to the Orwellian notion that stopping people using certain words destroys whatever it is the word signifies. As Ravitch puts it, ‘The goal of the language police is not just to stop us from using objectionable words, but to stop us from having objectionable thoughts’. Wokeness is essentially PC on steroids.

It is the woke response to climate change that shares the most with the 19th-century romantics. Paris’s Bohemians and today’s woke movement share an anxiety about the world, a preference for utopias and, above all, a ‘personal drama of salvation projected on to society’. This is the psychological foundation for things like the BirthStrike movement, where adults refuse to have children for the good of the planet (recently given impetus by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to have no more than two children).

And just as the Bohemians were the privileged youth of their day, the woke individual of the 21st century is typically a twentysomething who has faced no hardship. Like their 19th-century forebears in Paris, the woke young people of today can afford to indulge their trivial traumas.

Kevin Baldeosingh is a professional writer and author. Follow him on Twitter: @SatiristVulcan.

Picture by: Getty.

Let’s cancel cancel culture

Free speech is under attack from all sides – from illiberal laws, from a stifling climate of conformity, and from a powerful, prevailing fear of being outed as a heretic online, in the workplace, or even among friends, for uttering a dissenting thought. This is why we at spiked are stepping up our fight for speech, expanding our output and remaking the case for this most foundational liberty. But to do that we need your help. spiked – unlike so many things these days – is free. We rely on our loyal readers to fund our journalism. So if you want to support us, please do consider becoming a regular donor. Even £5 per month can be a huge help. You can find out more and sign up here. Thank you! And keep speaking freely.

Donate now

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Christopher Tyson

5th August 2019 at 7:56 pm

I enjoyed the piece and wouldn’t disagree with any of it. I’d just bring in a bit of dialectics, yes romantics are reactionary but on the other hand they can be very entertaining and make the world a more colourful and interesting place. Many very talented artists are pretty flaky. More seriously I pretty much identify with the existentialist tradition, and some have argued that existentialism is bourgeois reactionary philosophy. But I would also see it as a corrective, the assertion of the subject when society has become a threat to the individual. The genius of Kierkegaard arose chiefly in opposition to the system building of Hegel in which the individual was lost. The problem with Hegel was that not only was he awesome in his ambition and achievements but also that he was wrongs, Hegelian idealism gone wrong leads to us being entrapped in someone else’s idealised world. Kierkegaard wrong is an amusing and engaging commentator. It takes the genius of Marx to draw out the progressive aspects of Hegel, to turn Hegel the right way up, to envisage a world in which we will all be free to be romantics and artists. Of course humans thrive on struggle, in a perfect world we may become lazy and decadent, we would have to be a new kind of human. To some extent we have moved beyond left and right but not yet, we still have to identify ourselves as ‘left’ because our critique of identity politics is made in the name of greater universalism and freedom. For a while spiked seemed to be free of the plague of far right commentators below the line, their opposition to identity politics is based on a hostility to various groups and minorities and a perceived threat to their own presumed authority. Some of us would like to create a universalist progressive mass movement of active subjects, some for reasons of their own want to stop us.

steve moxon

6th August 2019 at 5:10 pm

Utter nonsense. Nothing of what you or the author of this article state is anything to do with ‘identity politics’, which is the Left backlash against ‘the workers’ for not ‘rising up’, and thereby undermining Marxist theory. Women, ethnics and ‘LGBT’ are faux ‘groups’ dreamed up by the Left as the supposed replacement ‘vanguard’ of the ‘revolution ever since they lost faith that ‘the workers’ would do the job. Read up on the history. Jesus. Spiked! does not want to air the Left’s dirty linen here. Ditto The Battle of Ideas, The Institute for Ideas.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 6:55 pm

It’s actually more about the normalisation of perversion to our children, the utterly diabolical promotion and mass-implentation of infanticide, the importation of the eastern ideology, and they’ve gone and thrown the climate-hoax in good for good measure.

Equating opposition to all that as ffaaaar-rigghhhgtt is why you’ll never receive authority for your loony, destructive, and diabolical plans. Steve is right about what he said about the left having become the motliest of all motley crews.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 8:01 pm

Tower of Babel, Chris, and why levt is loaded with such utter nutters.

Hana Jinks

7th August 2019 at 1:57 pm

They actually didn’t allow two of the other things l sais to stand, Chris. Think about that. Think about the things we stand for around here, and the things we wouldn’t like criticized. You can criticize whatever you like about me.

David Margison

5th August 2019 at 4:32 pm

I’m confused! Why is Spiked being described as of the left? I find spiked almost impartial, with maybe a lean towards the right! It’s why I read it. I lean towards the right but like to have my views challenged. Also I’m of an age where to be described as a lefty was more to do with socialism, to my mind the left has been hijacked by the PC middle class and violent minority interest groups who are attempting to force their oppinions into law.
Spiked left! I don’t think so.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 6:59 pm

They’re communists.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 7:00 pm

They have some normal stories from guest writers, but otherwise, they’re all full-blown communists.

Steve Stevens

10th June 2020 at 3:04 pm

Spiked has it’s roots in a print journal called Living Marxism, which was a publication of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Some of the occasional contributor to Spiked date back to the time when they had a weekly newspaper, The Next Step and an annual conference Preparing for Power. Whether they have a communist aspirations these days is not clear.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.