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.
Oppressed groups thus have a contradictory consciousness. On the one hand, they recognize their oppression through their lived experience. On the other hand, they have adopted the norms and ideologies of the ruling class as ‘common sense,’ leading them to give ‘tacit support’ to the dominant group. Oppressed groups need to develop a ‘critical consciousness’ which will allow them to recognize the reality of their oppression and will lead to the “erosion of consent and withdrawal of support for the dominant group” (p. 53). While Gramsci applied his theory to the struggle between economic classes, Jacob Gross recognizes that “[dominant] groups increasingly are defined and understood not only in terms of class but also of gender, race, sexual orientation, and so forth. Critical analysis of hegemony aims to expose and deconstruct the ideological strategies used by dominant groups to legitimate their domination as ‘common sense'” (p. 65).
Chapter 3 discusses the contributions of the Frankfurt School, a group of German philosophers and sociologists that formed during the 1930s. Despite the fact that the Frankfurt School is sometimes taken to be synonymous with ‘critical theory,’ it probably plays less of a role than Marx and Gramsci in critical theory’s popular, contemporary manifestations. To be sure, the founders of the Frankfurt School and their successors (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, etc…) were concerned with concepts of domination, emancipation, and the deconstruction of oppressive ideologies. However, their focus was largely on critiques of ‘instrumental reason’ (p. 86-88) and the ‘culture industry’ (p. 88-89).
The contributions of Pierre Bourdieu (Chapter 4) and Michel Foucault (Chapter 5) are more relevant to modern concerns. Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital, doxa, and misrecognition closely parallel Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ and Lukács’ ‘false consciousness’: “Bordieu uses the term doxa to describe the way the natural and social world is typically construed as self-evident [setting] the limits of the thinkable and the sayable… The process of schooling imposes a kind of symbolic violence on students of lower social standing… by utilizing ‘instruments of knowledge’ that are ‘arbitrary’ but that are made to appear objective and universal” (p. 123). While Bourdieu again focused his critique mainly on how class inequality is perpetuated through educational norms and structures (“proper” speech, “good” taste, etc…), contemporary scholars “extend and apply the concept of cultural capital… to include groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender, and ability/disability” (p. 125).
Likewise, while Foucault rejected simple binaries like “oppressor/oppressed, constraint/freedom, or conservative/progressive” (p. 139) and did not believe that power was concentrated within the hands of a single dominant group, his insistence on the interrelationship between truth and power is essential for understanding “applied postmodernism” within fields like gender studies or critical race theory. Dini Metro-Roland writes that, according to Foucault, “[t]here is no employment of knowledge that does not also constitute a utilization of power… The truth does not set one free; rather, it subsumes one under the rules of a particular game of truth” (p. 151).
In Chapter 6, “Feminisms: Embodying the Critical,” Julia Dodds demonstrates the overlap between feminism and critical theory. Indeed, she reverses the priority of the two disciplines and suggests that “critical social theory in education should be viewed as especially valuable because it is well informed by and aligned with both feminism and critical race theory” (p. 176).
Among the shared concerns of critical theory and feminism are “lived experience and hidden structures” and “dialogic engagements with the margins.” Like critical theory, contemporary feminism sees male oppression not only in explicit discrimination or unjust laws, but in subtle, insidious norms and values which undergird the patriarchy. Dodds’ chapter also acknowledges that the concept of ‘intersectionality,’ which emerged from critical race theory, has been increasingly important to contemporary feminism, as issues of race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, and physical ability are seen as intertwined: “the distinctive shift distinguishing the ‘third wave’ from the previous two is a better inclusion of people of color, of cross-cultural perspectives, and of genders that are ‘trans’ and ‘queer’ beyond the binary of women and man” (p. 174).
Critical race theory (Chapter 7) is a final strand of critical scholarship that is particularly relevant in a 21st century American context. CRT applies the framework of critical theory to the subject of race: “CRT scholars argued… that… the hegemonic system of white supremacy and racism actually shaped the very construction of the legal foundation upon which U.S. society is built… CRT helped unmask the so-called objective, colorblind interpretations of law and legal doctrine and revealed the ways in which the law functioned as a mechanism to solidify control over the social and structural arrangements of U.S. society by whites” (p. 206-207). Key concepts of CRT include Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, intersectionality, racial identity, and whiteness (p. 209-213).
In particular, the epistemology of CRT stresses the special access that people of color have to truth, which is unavailable to whites, who are blinded by their privileged white racial frame: “CRT framework recognizes the centrality of experiential knowledge of people of color and views this knowledge as legitimate, appropriate, and critical to understanding, analyzing, and teaching about racial subordination” (p. 211).
“CRT scholars also respond to criticisms… by challenging dominant claims of objectivity, neutrality, colorblindness, and merit” (p. 212). “Discussions about what constitutes ‘good’ scholarship is subtly yet firmly linked to whiteness or Eurocentric epistemologies, which… privilege ‘mind over body, intellectual over experiential ways of knowing, mental abstractions over passion, bodily sensations and tactile understandings'” (p. 212).
Overall, this book further confirmed for me the basic incompatibility of critical theory and Christianity, a subject on which I’ve written extensively. However, the more-or-less chronological order employed by Levison et al. helped me to appreciate how the entire project of critical theory emerged out of -and is predicated on- a rejection of a basic biblical worldview. It’s impossible to view our fundamental problem as our innate sinfulness and simultaneously to believe that we can achieve true liberation through political action or economic reform. It’s impossible to accept the doctrine of Scripture and to simultaneously reject the notion of objective truth. It’s impossible to adhere to the doctrine of the Imago Dei and to simultaneously hold that our most basic identity is self- or socially-created. Time and again, the critical theorists raised questions that Christians would never even think to ask because they are operating on an entirely different set of assumptions about truth, reason, objectivity, communication, ethics, and identity.
Anyone who is interested in the rise of Social Justice Warriors, ‘woke’ culture, progressive politics, or campus activism should read this careful, detailed work for a better understanding of the theoretical framework on which these movements are based.
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