Of course, not all those who use the language of CT fully embrace its tenets or understand the paradigm underlying the language they use. Its subtlety is part of its great strength. Many continue to hold an orthodox understanding of the Gospel while using CT as an “analytical tool.” But there are some, and their numbers increase, who have so embraced CT that the Gospel has become synonymous with it.
How many books by people of color do you have on your shelves? How about women? When you reach for a commentary do you inevitably grab one written by a white male? What about the Bible you read, were the translators mostly white and male? My guess is that you have encountered some of these questions on social media of late, perhaps you have even been challenged with similar queries from the pulpit? Indeed even some prominent Anglican clergy ask them. If you do not have a sufficient answer, if you realize under such questioning that you do not have the right proportion of authors of color and women on your shelves, you will likely come away burdened by a sense of guilt, as if you have sinned in some way. This is how Critical Theory works.
Critical Theory(CT) is the term used for a system of social analysis and revolution, Marxist in origin, that arose from within what is called the “Frankfurt School” in the early twentieth century. To understand the categories of thought embraced by critical theorists it is helpful to have at least a basic grasp of Karl Marx’s historical ideology.
Historical Roots of Critical Theory
As the industrial revolution swept across Europe in the 19th century there began a massive population shift from country to city. Men, women, and children desperate for employment took factory jobs, most working long hours for low pay. Meanwhile, a growing middle class began to assert itself. Merchants, businessmen, and professionals became increasingly affluent, enjoying the fruits of working-class labor. Industrialists became immensely wealthy while laborers who produced the items upon which their wealth was built lived and toiled in despairing, inhuman conditions. Various labor movements sprang up in protest, some calling for labor reform, others for revolution. Karl Marx was by no means the first or the only revolutionary of the Industrial Age but he was responsible for articulating the predominant revolutionary paradigm which provided the foundation for the tyrannical and bloody communist regimes of the twentieth century.
Marx theorized that eventually and inevitably the working masses, the proletariat, would take ownership of the means of production (factories, mills, plants, etc) from the bourgeoisie (the capitalist owners of most of society’s wealth and means of production). They would establish a utopian state (Communism) in which the proletariat, rather than the bourgeois, would own the means of production and have an equal share in their products. Private ownership would wither away and all things would be shared in common.
While Marx held Communism to be an historical inevitability, Vladimir Lenin argued that history must be given a violent nudge. Subsequent to the Russian revolution, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party took power and bourgeois and aristocratic blood began to flow, along with that of peasants unwilling to surrender their small plots of land or their stores of produce to Bolshevik thugs. Lenin initiated a totalitarian murder apparatus that succeeded in killing tens of thousands of such “class enemies.” But Lenin’s achievement pales in comparison to the millions his successor Stalin slaughtered, and even he was outdone by Mao in China.
Atheism underlies the Marxist ethic. Judeo/Christian understandings of right and wrong are, according to the Marxist ethos, inherently bourgeois notions and therefore counter-revolutionary. The Revolution is god. In Lenin’s adaptation of Marx, the Party is the Revolution. The Party is also the State (there is no distinction) and the true embodiment of the proletariat or, more simply, the “people.”
To be bourgeois is to stand condemned as an enemy of the Revolution and thus the Party and thus the People. It does not matter how hard you have worked to earn what you own, nor how little you own, the fact that you are bourgeois means that you have necessarily profited from the labor of the proletariat. Your wealth is the fruit of capitalist exploitation. You are a class enemy. The only chance for redemption is reeducation which, if you submit to it, will produce a “raised consciousness” through which you renounce your class privileges and repent of your exploitation.
According to revolutionary logic, even a worker can be a class enemy. If you would rather have the Church and Tsar, if you are content to work in your factory, take home your pay, and provide for your family you are, despite your objective employment as a factory worker, bourgeois. Should the vast majority of workers prefer the Tsar to the Party, they would, in spite of their numbers, not be counted as belonging to the People:
“quantitative indices alone cannot be taken as the decisive determinants for judging the real nature of a revolutionary grouping. More fundamental are such qualitative features as the program and relationship with the class whose interests it formulates, represents, and fights for. ‘The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party,’ wrote Trotsky in ‘What Next?’— ‘The class, taken by itself, is only raw material for exploitation. The proletariat acquires an independent role only at that moment when, from a social class in itself, it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious.’”(James P. Canon, “The Revolutionary Party and its Role in the Struggle for Socialism“)
On the basis of such reasoning, the affluent intellectuals who ran the Chinese totalitarian police state named their nationalized prison camp the “The People’s Republic” while systematically murdering the People.
Critical theorists broadened the scope of Marxist thought beyond economics and class into the realms of race, culture, and sex. Those who possess social power by virtue of cultural dominance occupy, within CT, the role filled by the bourgeois in classical Marxism. Social power or “privilege” takes the place of the “means of production” and “wealth”. Those who do not possess social power, the “oppressed,” occupy the role of the People. The highly educated and affluent intellectuals who recognize these inequities and agitate for a redistribution of power and a material redress of historical wrongs, occupy the role of the Party.