Popularly, critical theory is known as ‘cultural Marxism’ because it is thought to translate Marx’s idea of an economic class struggle into social and cultural terms. Instead of workers (the proletariat) being oppressed by owners (the bourgeoisie) via their control of the means of production, various subordinate demographic groups (women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled) are oppressed by dominant demographic groups (men, whites, heterosexuals, the abled) via their control of the culture’s ideology. These dominant groups impose their norms, values, and expectations on society to secure their own power, privilege, and control.
Critical theory (sometimes known colloquially as ‘cultural Marxism’) is an important subject, both in the culture at large and within the evangelical church. Bradley Levinson’s Beyond Critique: Exploring Social Theories and Education is a comprehensive, graduate-level overview of critical theory or -as he would hasten to clarify- the various critical theories that have shaped sociology, politics, and education over the course of the last two centuries. He and his co-authors structure the book around seven different ‘streams’ of critical thought: its historical origins in Marx and Weber, the Neo-Marxism of Gramsci, and the Frankfurt School (Chapters 1-3), along with more modern incarnations within postmodernism, second- and third-wave feminism, and critical race theory (Chapters 4-7). Hands-down, this book is the best source I’ve found for those interested in a systematic explanation of critical theory from the pen of critical theorists themselves.
One of the central themes of the book is the complexity and diversity of critical theory. Trying to succinctly define ‘critical theory’ is a bit like trying to succinctly define ‘feminism’ or ‘evangelicalism’; any brief account will necessarily be controversial. Nonetheless, Levinson offers this description:
critical social theories are those conceptual accounts of the social world that attempt to understand and explain the causes of structural domination and inequality in order to facilitate human emancipation and equity. (p. 5, emph. in original)
Levinson goes on to list several other key features which are “defining characteristics” of critical theory not shared by ‘liberal positivists’ or other social theorists:
- [critical theory] is not neutral in reference to values and has a definite … conception of ‘progress’ and the social good, often a utopian vision or concept of ‘liberation’
- the assumed need to dismantle and critique taken-for-granted ideologies, to challenge the ‘false consciousness’ … or ‘misrecognition’… that enables social domination.
- an understanding of domination as structural yet dialectically connected to agency in people’s ‘everyday lives.’ (p. 11)
To put it succinctly, critical theory in all its forms holds that people are oppressed not primarily by coercion, but by various ideologies -like individualism, meritocracy, or capitalism- that pass as ‘common sense.’These ideologies create and perpetuate social inequality. Critical theorists work to expose, deconstruct, and dismantle these ideologies, thus liberating groups and societies from their grasp.
Popularly, critical theory is known as ‘cultural Marxism’ because it is thought to translate Marx’s idea of an economic class struggle into social and cultural terms. Instead of workers (the proletariat) being oppressed by owners (the bourgeoisie) via their control of the means of production, various subordinate demographic groups (women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled) are oppressed by dominant demographic groups (men, whites, heterosexuals, the abled) via their control of the culture’s ideology. These dominant groups impose their norms, values, and expectations on society to secure their own power, privilege, and control. While I personally don’t emphasize the historical connection to Marx, the authors insist that his work is foundational to critical theory. In their first chapter, they write: “Alone among these thinkers [i.e., Horkheimer, Bourdieu, Foucault, etc.], Karl Marx invites consensus as a ‘true’ critical theorist. Indeed, for many, he alone inaugurates the critical tradition” (p. 25-26).
In Chapter 1, Levinson and others show how Marx introduced and developed the basic ideas and themes of critical theory . For example, Marx believed that the ruling economic class dictates the norms, values, and ideas of the larger culture: “Marx argues that capitalism generates a dominant ideology that purveys an ‘appearance of freedom’ for the workers, in which capitalism appears to be the only natural and reasonable path to material prosperity” (p. 31). Similarly, Marx’s goal was the liberation of the oppressed class and the achievement of a just society founded on principles of equality. Where Marx fundamentally differed from critical theorists after him was in his historical materialism, his belief that culture (superstructure) was entirely determined by economic conditions (base).
Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci, the focus of Chapter 2, is the second figure whose work is essential for understanding contemporary critical theory. Gramsci was puzzled by Marx’s failed prediction of a communist revolution: “why [did] workers in factories [who] knew firsthand the brutality of industrial capitalism [never] organize… thereby giving implicit support to the functioning of the factory, and indeed the entire economic system?” (p. 52). To explain this phenomenon, Gramsci formulated his theory of hegemony, “the social, cultural, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group over other groups” (p. 52). It is the ideological hegemony of the ruling class that tricks workers into assenting to their own domination.