Are you a Cultural Marxist? Are they? How would you know?
The first column in this series defined postmodernity, a form of society in which, I suggested, we all now currently reside.
I am not claiming that all of us all the time think as postmodernists. Engineers and physicians, at least on the job, think as heirs of the (modern) Enlightenment, while historians and social scientists think in terms of (modern) historical consciousness. Instead, I have argued that postmodernity is now common, even typical, in our society.
In the current controversies over “cancel culture,” “BLM,” “critical race theory,” and the like, the philosophical school known as “Critical Theory” bobs up frequently. Critical Theory is sometimes depicted as an early form of postmodernism that gives rise to these other cultural developments.
But it mostly isn’t.
Critical Theory refers to a group of twentieth-century German philosophers known as the Frankfurt School. The most famous among them are Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas—the last of whom is still productive in his 90s.
The “critical” in Critical Theory echoes Karl Marx’s famous dictum: “”Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Theses on Feuerbach, 1845). Critical Theory has combined philosophy and the social sciences so as to expose the true workings of modern life and to formulate a way toward a better future than the paths offered by communism, fascism, or democracy wedded to runaway capitalism.
Critical Theorists thus have been successors to Marx in both their quest to unmask what’s really going on in society and in their intent to offer a better alternative. Unlike Marx, however, they have not focused mostly on economic matters, but submitted everything to their X-rays, from art to politics to religion. They also don’t see the way forward as inevitable class warfare, as Marxists do, but as a long process of democratic negotation.
“Cultural Marxism” has been suggested as a term to describe and to dismiss this kind of thinking. Indeed, the term is mostly used by people who don’t understand it very well as a stick with which to beat opponents to their political and cultural left. We’re better off not using it at all, since it is at least as wrong as it is right.
Everywhere the Critical Theorists have looked, people with power were exploiting people without it, often dressing up that exploitation in Big Stories of “the common good,” or “the good of the nation,” or “the good of humankind.” In this sense, the Critical Theorists have been allies of the postmodernists as both groups see in all ideologies mere legitimations of unjust relationships.
Critical Theory is not, however, postmodern. Again like Marx, it is modern in its confidence that truth can be found, if laboriously rather than easily read off the surface. (“Things aren’t what they appear” could be a slogan for both Marx and Critical Theory.) And Critical Theory has also sought the one right way to live the Good Life, rather than despairing, as postmoderns do, of ever knowing for certain anything important. In short, Critical Theory is antiskeptical, while the postmodern outlook is deeply skeptical.
Paradoxically, democracy is therefore the best form of politics for both Critical Theory and for postmoderns, albeit in different respects. The Critical Theorists maintain a hope that if everyone enjoys and practices free speech, unconstrained by official ideology or the repression of major corporations, what is true and good will emerge into greater and greater clarity and attractiveness.
Indeed, Critical Theorists incline to a “progressive” politics precisely in that they believe that so long as the political sphere is truly open to rational discourse—without warping or silencing by powerful interests—and particularly if once-marginal voices are given platforms, individual and communal betterment will eventually be worked out in the extended conversations and transactions of a liberal (= “free) culture.
Since postmodernists hold out no hope that we will all eventually agree on major values, the next best thing is to secure as much liberty as possible for each person and community, while sticking together for certain common goods: security from external threats, internal order, basic logistics (roads, sewers), and the protection of fundamental human rights. Postmodernists therefore typically opt for democracy as well, not because they are particularly hopeful of good results, but because the wide distribution of power across a wide electorate at least diffuses the threat of any one individual or community dominating another.
But just a second. I thought “liberals”—like these postmodernists and Critical Theorists—all yearn for a socialist state, which would rob us of our freedom and our hard-earned money. I thought all these lefties want to dictate how everyone has to behave. And the final stop on this leftward line is communism.
Isn’t that what one hears from the right these days?
Next week, we’ll get clear what “liberal” means—and how it does, and doesn’t, relate to socialism and communism. And once we have set those big concepts in order, we can finally get to Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, “cancel culture,” and you.