Understanding Marxism Is Key To Understanding Today’s Leftists

As Americans, we are being assaulted by numerous alphabet ideologies we don’t understand—from DEI to ESG to LGBTQ+. We seek to understand through logic, but by doing so, we become only more confused. The only way to understand what’s happening is to recognize the ideology that underlies all of it: Marxism. When Patrisse Cullors, BLM’s co-founder, acknowledged that BLM leaders were “trained Marxists,” we failed to understand the significance. It is time to change that.

Marxism’s central idea is that the world is broken down into two groups; or as Marx stated: “in a word, oppressor and oppressed.” This is from his opening statement in the Communist Manifesto (published in 1848). If you remember nothing else, remember this.

Classic Marxism sees the world in binary terms: the bourgeoisie (oppressor) and the proletariat (oppressed). The bourgeoisie own the means of production, and the proletariat don’t. Marx believed that, if the proletariat seized the means of production, all class conflict would end, bringing us to a Communist utopia. Ironically, Marxists advocated achieving utopia through violent revolution.

The Frankfurt School is the key to understanding how Marxism is used today. It is responsible for what we now term “cultural Marxism” or “neo-Marxism.” The Frankfurt School was established in the 1920s to study Marxism with the goal of understanding why communism was not taking hold in Western societies. The most important idea that came from the Frankfurt school is “critical theory.” (The seminal work is Traditional and Critical Theory” by Max Horkheimer, published in 1937.)

Image: Herbert Marcuse (edited), from the Marcuse Family. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Critical theory expanded on Marx’s idea of the “superstructure.” The superstructure is made up of all the cultural and social institutions in society. Marx explained that those are the things that influence our “modes of thought, and views of life.”

According to traditional critical theorists, the superstructure reinforces the power structures and acts as a natural resistance to the changes that would otherwise bring about communism. The superstructure, they argue, is subconsciously ingrained and taints our traditional modes of analysis (e.g., reason), thereby making elusive any objective analysis of the world.

Critical theorists believe a more subjective analysis is required to understand how the superstructure maintains the bourgeoisie “hegemony” (control/dominance). In short, critical theory runs everything through the filter of oppressor and oppressed. It seeks to expose and eradicate all perceived tyranny within our social institutions. For Marxists, critical theory becomes the tool to address all disparate outcomes between oppressor and oppressed.

Critical theory expanded significantly in the 1960s under a movement known as the “New Left,” another product of the Frankfurt School. The New Left is guided by the writings of a new wave of Marxists led by Herbert Marcuse, often considered the “Guru of the New Left.” Marcuse believed a communist revolution required the development of what he called “radical subjectivity”—that is, the development of a form of self-consciousness that finds present social and economic conditions intolerable.

The New Left expanded critical theory beyond analyzing the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and, instead, looked at a multitude of different power struggles. “Queer theory” analyzed how social institutions maintained heterosexual hegemony, the modern feminist movement analyzed how the institutions were used to maintain the patriarchy’s hegemony, and critical race theory (which began in Harvard Law School in the mid-1970s) analyzed how the institutions maintained white hegemony.

The obvious problem with critical theory is that it purports to explain all disparate outcomes between the various oppressor/oppressed groups. Its advocates are conditioned to attribute any unequal outcomes to institutions and not to individuals. However, the connections are often tenuous and unverifiable (think “racist highways”). When one believes oppression is reinforced by unverifiable factors within social institutions, one soon comes to believe that oppression lurks everywhere within those institutions.

Take, for example, the issue of “systemic racism,” a concept that was raised repeatedly during the George Floyd riots. Advocates could not provide concrete, verifiable examples of “systemic racism.” Instead, systemic racism came to stand for the vague notion that our social institutions reinforce oppression on unconscious levels. This naturally led policymakers to flail around on nonsense solutions designed to disable the institutions themselves (think “defund the police”). Contrast modern systemic racism to the actual systemic racism in Jim Crow laws—laws that are verifiably racist and oppressive.

Without concrete or verifiable explanations for disparate outcomes, critical theorists come to see even the most innocuous ideas as responsible for maintaining the oppressive “hegemony.” Extremist CRT advocates attack ideas that most would find universally beneficial. Why do whites (and now Asians) do better in school? To CRT advocates, it’s because standardized testing, meritocracy, and even math and logic are racist concepts that only serve to maintain the status quo. These extremists even decry diligence and promptness as “white” standards used to maintain oppression. Ultimately, if there is any “inequity” (defined as unequal outcomes), the related institutions are viewed with suspicion, sometimes comically so.

In other words, critical theory trains people to ignore the far more obvious and simple explanations, such as cultural differences, fatherless homes, and other factors that more directly lead to differences in school performance. In that way, critical theory prevents us from effectively identifying and addressing real problems.

With subjective analysis, evidence becomes less relevant. Critical theorists use concepts like “lived experience” or “my truth” to support disparate outcomes. Lived experience holds that truth is subjective and that we experience oppression through our subjective experience as members of victim groups. Individuals from oppressor groups do not have “lived experience” and may not assess the lived experience of the oppressed group members. In fact, this is a common theme in Marxism: the rights of the “oppressors” are irrelevant or subordinate to the rights of the oppressed, which are sacrosanct (think different standards for free speech).

At first blush, we may compare “lived experience” to anecdotal evidence. However, the differences are significant. Whereas anecdotal evidence is an objective piece of evidence used to verify conclusions from larger data sets, lived experience is a subjective understanding of the world. It cannot be verified, falsified, or discounted by the oppressor groups. Instead, it simply must be accepted as true, and it becomes a replacement for traditional scientific methods of proof. Under the “lived experience” standard, objective verification of critical theory becomes impossible and ultimately irrelevant.

Critical theory teaches members of “oppressed” groups that they have no control over their destiny and that their failings are a result of unseen forces. While this offers a satisfyingly comfortable explanation for failure, it encourages complacency and resentment. Success requires an ability to identify a problem and a belief that one can address the problem. Critical theory removes this ability to identify problems and removes a sense of control.

For these reasons, critical theory should not be taught to our children; it will only lead to resentment, bitterness, and helplessness. We were mindful of these threats during the Cold War, but let our guard down after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is time again to be on guard. And the first step is to understand the threat.

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