2020 was the year that Critical Theory came to dominate culture in America. It ruled academia for a half century but only in the past year has it begun to rule the American public square as well. Perhaps you’re not interested in Critical Theory but Critical Theory is interested in you. It behooves us to understand it better, because it will be a central theme in American culture for the foreseeable future. For readers who are not familiar with it, I provide here a synopsis. There is a connection to Darwinism at the heart of Critical Theory, as we will see.
Critical theory is, at its root, cultural Marxism. It emerged from the failure of Leninism to capture the hearts and minds of a group of European intellectuals in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These intellectuals — who came to be known as the Frankfurt School — emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930’s to escape Nazism. By the 1960s, American academia was a hotbed of Critical Theory. That heat has now jumped the walls of academia and is burning in our media, in our culture, and in our politics.
Leninism, to which Critical Theory is a reaction, emerged from the belief that the proletariat was unwilling (due to lethargy and ignorance) to lead the Marxist revolution. In order for Marxists to grasp power by force, a spark — a vanguard — was needed. Lenin and his Bolshevik vanguard stole power in Russia. The problem with Leninism, from the Critical Theorists’ viewpoint, was that the Soviet Union was, to all sane observers, odious. Leninist states in the Soviet Union and in China and Eastern Europe were totalitarian hellholes.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, some European devotees of Marxism — Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Jurgen Habermas, among others — were discomfited by these Leninist (and Stalinist) failures and sought more effective ways to disseminate Marxist ideology.
The Critical Theorists’ critique of Marxism and of Western capitalist culture grows more byzantine with each generation. Succinctly, the Critical Theorists’ critique of Marxism is that it focused erroneously on economic dynamics, instead of uncovering and addressing the cultural problems of modernity, of which economics was just a part. Critical Theorists’ specific critique of Leninism is not merely that it was odious but that it was too visibly so — Leninist sterility and brutality publicly discredited many of the (in the theorists’ view) genuine insights of Marx.
What difference did Antonio Gramsci make?
The tactical underpinnings of the Frankfurt School, a key intellectual group, dovetailed nicely with the theories of a Marxist who was not a member of the school, but whose insights were seminal in the dissemination of cultural Marxism. Antonio Gramsci was an imprisoned Italian communist who became disillusioned with Leninism, for many of the same reasons that moved the Cultural Theorists in Frankfurt. Gramsci believed that capitalist nations were too powerful militarily and politically to succumb to a Leninist-style storming of the Winter Palace. The capitalist weakness was cultural. Gramsci saw that a more insidious tack — a quasi-religious appeal to equality and justice and liberation — could, over several generations, inculcate Marxist values in Western societies without the need for violent overthrow of Western governments. This Gramscian strategy of insidious infiltration of Western organizations — schools and universities, entertainment and media, fraternal groups and political parties — came to be called “the long march through the institutions”. It has been wildly successful.
So how do these things happen?
It may seem odd that Marxism is ascendant when by all rights it should have died — it is, after all, three decades after communism’s collapse in ignominy in the former Soviet Union. Yet the very public failure was, from the Critical Theorist and Gramscian view, the failure of Leninism, not the failure of Marxism. Malachi Martin, in his book, The Keys of this Blood, argues that Gorbachev’s perestroika was actually a strategy to accomplish just this — the jettisoning of Leninism from Marxism so as to disseminate Marxist ideology in the West without the Leninist ballast. In Martin’s view, Gorbachev’s strategy was Gramscian. The Soviet leader realized that Marxism would never prevail in the West as long as the nation of the gulag archipelago was its standard-bearer. The Soviet Union had to die for Marxism to live.
What difference does it make today?
Critical Theory is a synthesis of Marxist and Freudian analysis of modern culture. It diagnoses man’s condition as that of alienation and reification*. In Critical Theorists’ terms, alienation is the psychological effect of exploitation and capitalist division of labor. Reification is the use of human beings as if they were things — as if they were tools. Critical theorists understand culture as structures of alienation and reification, of dominance and exploitation, which create hierarchies of power. The goal of Critical Theory is to analyze these relations of power so as to “liberate” oppressed victim classes. So an endless parade of victims with perpetual grievances follows — every ladder has bottom rungs.
The cultural hallmarks of Critical Theory — political correctness, vigilance over microaggressions, Cancel Culture, and the like — are weapons in this war to rearrange the structures of power. Intersectionality is essential to the coordination of struggle because it brings together victim groups to apply maximal pressure at culture’s weakest points.
What difference has Darwin made?
Strange that it may seem, evolution theorist Charles Darwin plays a central role in this drama. Karl Marx himself credited Darwin with much of his basic insight into human history. Marx wrote to fellow communist theorist Friedrich Engels that Darwin’s theory provided “the basis in natural history for our view”.
Marxism is economics red in tooth and claw, so to speak. Cultural Theory is culture red in tooth and claw — Darwinian “natural” selection applied to cultural change. Put another way, Darwinism is the naturalization of Marxism and Cultural Theory. As Social Darwinism is to capitalism, cultural Darwinism is to Critical Theory.
What difference did Milton make?
You may be thinking “I’ve heard this before”. If you’ve read Paradise Lost, you have. Milton’s epic recounts the angel Lucifer’s fall and his struggle to gain power over heaven and earth — to restructure reality and move himself up the ladder of power. It is the ultimate culture war. The analogy between Lucifer’s strife and the Marxist war for cultural supremacy was not lost on Saul Alinsky, who wrote this epigraph in his book Rules for Radicals:
Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.
Doing the math
There are of course many ways to analyze cultural dynamics. A Christian analysis, for example, might entail a calculus of mutual love and sacrifice, the fruits of grace and redemption. Critical Theory, however, is a calculus of power. The Marxist analysis, focused as it is on structures of power, undoubtedly has a satanic flavor, whether one understands ‘satanic’ in the literal sense (as I do) or as a metaphor for a Darwinian analysis of culture red in tooth and claw. Critical Theory provides a jobs program for leftist academics — there are innumerable PhD theses be written on “the hegemony of transphobic intertextuality of microaggressions,” and it is a prescription for perpetual civil war.
If we are to avoid civil war, we need to understand Critical Theory and the subtle Darwinian ideology — the satanic ideology of struggle for power — that motivates it. Many thinkers — Alexander Solzhenitsyn prominently among them — have provided a roadmap for personal sanity and cultural survival in the throes of Marxist totalitarianism. We will do well to listen to people who have lived through the world we are now entering.
Note: For a sympathetic yet readable synopsis of Critical Theory, I suggest Stephen Eric Bronner’s Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. For an unsympathetic analysis, Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is very helpful.
Further reading: Why did New York have COVID policy that killed elderly patients?