For those of you who haven’t been formally introduced to the sociological doomsday weapon of the 20th century, critical theory is an approach to analyzing society not for the purpose of understanding it, but for the purpose of transforming it by undermining its existing institutions. The hard work of understanding how and why people do things is unnecessary if your goal is merely to take a sledgehammer to the machinery. Critical theory is the invention of the Marxist Frankfort School of the 1930s, so, as one might expect, it reinterprets everything it looks at through a Marxist (or neo-Marxist) lens. The women’s studies, racial studies, and gender studies curricula found in almost every university in the West are the direct products of the more general critical theory program. Many things that end in “theory” (e.g., deconstruction theory, queer theory) are also critical theory’s progeny.
The connection between critical theory and Marxism is neither disputable nor often denied. The discipline’s formulators (Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, et al.) were all self-identified Marxists teaching in an avowedly Marxist school. Modern academic proponents of critical theory and its descendants do not go to any great lengths to deny either the discipline’s origins or their own fundamentally Marxist intentions. Only the mainstream media, renowned for denying the existence of gorillas discovered in plain sight, deny that the echoes they make in their echo chambers have a distinctly German socialist accent.
In our deconstruction of this leftist tool, let’s begin with an examination of the promise Marxism has always made though never achieved. While the language of the promise has changed from “emancipation” and “liberation” to “social justice” over the years, the basic sales pitch behind all leftist proselytism has remained consistent – the promotion of a better and fairer society. Well, who wouldn’t want that? Any decent person, given a choice between a fair society and an unfair one, all else being equal, prefers a fair one. For many reasons, I believe that the Marxist formulation is naïve and problematic, but for the sake of argument, let’s just accept the leftist claim as it stands: their goal is to build a better and fairer society.
In the pursuit of a better and fairer society, critical theory comes with one colossal rub. If we accept that such a society can exist, one of the characteristics it has to possess is at least some degree of stability. Implicit in “better and fairer” must be the notion that most improvements made become permanent. A utopia poised to blow itself apart at the end of one perfectly blissful generation certainly clashes with the left’s new buzzword: “sustainability.” Moreover, even the most rabid leftists will admit, if pressed, that change is not always good. For them to believe that white colonizers wickedly oppressed the non-whites of the world, leftists have to imagine some better condition non-whites were living in prior to the colonization. In other words, they have to admit that conditions can get worse in history – that history isn’t rigged by nature to automatically make things better. Their argument against conservatism, if they have one, has to be that things can be deliberately improved – not simply that blowing up the status quo inevitably leads to an improvement. The indiscriminate destruction of the status quo, however, is precisely what critical theory was designed to accomplish.