What Critical Race Theory Is and Isn’t. Spoiler Alert: It’s Racist and Not Marxist

Folks are private messaging me to explain critical race theory to them, so I thought readers of Freedom and Reason would find a blog entry useful. I have blogged about CRT quite a bit here. However, my critique works from a Marxist dialectical position and it’s perhaps not immediately accessible to those not well-versed in Marxist thought (like with Einstein, most people who think they know Marx’s ideas don’t really). Therefore, in this blog entry, I conscript an anti-Marxist/anti-CRT activist to assist me in conveying an understanding of CRT that is more easily digestible. At the same time, I critique the thinking of that activist and his comrades to show why those interested in actual leftwing praxis should reject CRT.

The anti-Marxist/anti-CRT activist who I will use for these purposes is Christopher Rufo. He has authored numerous articles on critical race theory, many of which can be read at City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute. For the present essay, I will use a piece he published at USA Today: “What I discovered about critical race theory in public schools and why it shouldn’t be taught.” He gets a lot right in his work, but he gets one piece wrong and it’s a doozy. He portrays CRT as neo-Marxist. This is somewhat understandable given that CRT claims to be leftwing and appeals to Karl Marx, while Rufo is a right-wing populist at war with progressivism. But CRT is not Marxist but instead a betrayal of leftwing praxis—it’s a deception developed and advanced by cultural managers subservient to corporate state ambitions.

Christopher Rufo, writer for Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

Here’s what Rufo gets right: “Critical race theory is an academic discipline that claims that the United States was founded on racism, oppression and white supremacy—and that these forces are still at the root of our society. Some supporters of critical race theory claim it is merely a ‘lens,’ arguing that ‘race is a social construct’ and that racism is ‘system’ not individual.” Rufo argues that “this is a strategic retreat that fails to grapple with some of the theory’s more controversial concepts.” What are these? Here’s where Rufo’s explanation goes wrong: “Critical race theory reformulates the old Marxist dialectic of oppressor and oppressed, replacing the class categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat with the identity categories of white and Black [sic]. But the basic conclusion is the same: In order to liberate man, society must be fundamentally transformed through moral, economic and political revolution.” “In simple terms,” Rufo continues, “critical race theory can be seen as a form of ‘race-based Marxism’; they share a common conceptual framework. Critical race theory was derived from ‘critical theory,’ a 20th century ideology sometimes called ‘Neo-Marxism.’”

So, while Rufo is correct about the way the logic of the class struggle is appropriated by CRT with race categories substituted (and then reduced in a vulgar manner to black and white racial terms), he is wrong to call CRT “race-based Marxism.” It is also incorrect to call CRT “neo-Marxist,” which is the way many CRT advocates describe themselves, if not simply “Marxist.”

Moreover, critical theory is not a monolithic system. At first approximation, there are two types. The first is that formulated by such Frankfurt School luminaries as Theodor Adorno, Marx Horkheimer, and Franz Neumann, a synthesis mainly composed of the work of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud. That type constitutes a powerful critique of the corporate state and its administrative apparatus.

The second is Herbert Marcuse’s brand of critical theory, which was developed synthesizing with the first type the reactionary phenomenology of Martin Heidegger, a philosopher of the Nazi regime in Germany during that totalitarian moment. Marcuse, author of Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man, dresses up the gloomy and joyless style of Heideggerian thought in language he finds in Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), guru of the New Left

It is onto Marcuse’s corruption of critical theory that CRT proponents latch. One can see this plainly in the adoption of Marcuse’s concept of “repressive tolerance,” in which the liberal value of free speech is jettisoned for the sake of ideological warfare, censorship moving on the wings of power. Marcuse is thus not properly a neo-Marxist, but a neo-Hegelian thinker (see my essays The Noisy and Destructive Children of Herbert Marcuse and Cultural Marxism: Real Thing or Far-Right Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory?). I will explain what I mean by neo-Hegelian in a moment. It will suffice at this point to identify it as a totalitarian philosophy.

I would also like to note the work of two critics of Marcuse for those who wish to follow up on this. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre accuses Marcuse of right Hegelianism, calling him a “pre-Marxist” thinker.” Leszek Kołakowski, a critic of Marxism who, in my view is unconvincing in his argument that Stalinism represented not a deformation of Marxism but its logical outcome (it is beyond the scope of this essay to take up that argument), was nonetheless perceptive in describing Marcuse as anti-Marxist, jettisoning the man’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic (which I take up in the next section) and substituting for the politics of class struggle Freudian notions of love and happiness (there is a very good four-part documentary on this by Adam Curtis called The Century of the Self). In the third volume of his Main Currents of Marxism, Kolakowski argues that Marcuse envisions a world “ruled despotically by an enlightened group … realiz[ing] in themselves the unity of Logos and Eros, and throw[ing] off the vexatious authority of logic, mathematics, and the empirical sciences.” Sound familiar?

* * *

For Marx, race is ideology, like religion and other forms of alienation. Marx’s treatment of alienation is important to grasp in order to understand the corpus of Marx’s output. For Marx, human beings are distinct individuals who possess a species-being (or species-essence, both of which are translated from the German word Gattungswesen) by dent of sharing the same genome (a biological reality unknown at the time that, like Darwin, Marx anticipated). With the emergence of property and the state, human beings, who had heretofore existed in a state of “primitive communism,” the original form of society confirmed by archeologists and anthropologists as gatherer and hunter arrangements, became segmented into social classes out of which ideologies, such as religion, race, and gender, emerged, to justify unjust social arrangements rooted in exploitative economic structures. History is understood as a succession of such modes of production (ancient, feudalist, and so on), with capitalism (at the time of Marx’s life) being the latest. Race is thus part of the superstructure that facilitates capitalist hegemony. This is why Marx was so exuberant in his letter to Abraham Lincoln upon the occasion of Lincoln’s reelection to the presidency of the United States; Marx saw potential in the resolution of the Civil War: the elimination of racism and the subsequent unification of the world class.

As such, Karl Marx’s thought is the diametric opposite of that which we find in the work of such CRT advocates as Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Columbia Law School professor most often credited with establishing the discipline. In contrast to Crenshaw and her ilk, who think in race essentialist terms, Marx is an egalitarian who endeavors in his work to persuade the working class to organize to dismantle the superstructure of race and other ideologies. As I have stressed numerous times in my writings, Marx would be the last person to advocate for organizing political and cultural struggle around race. He would immediately see through the deception of replacing equality, which concerns individuals, with “equity,” which concerns identity groups. Marx was an individualist and a humanist. His work establishes the material foundation for universal human rights. CRT is collectivist and authoritarian. Its work transmits totalitarian sensibilities to those vulnerable to crude feelings of resentment.

What makes Marx’s thought difficult for folks like Rufo to understand is that Marx proceeds by the dialectical method, a convoluted method (not in his hands, of course) developed by a group of German idealist philosophers in the late eighteenth century, its principle advocates Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. It is Hegel’s approach to the dialectic in particular that Marx takes up. But he does not leave it as he finds it. Inspired by Hegel’s rebellious student Ludwig Feuerbach, Marx transforms the dialectic and draws from it the opposite conclusion. In doing so, Marx establishes the foundation of social science. His great discoveries flow from this method, discoveries that, as Engels declares them, put Marx alongside Newton and Darwin in the pantheon of revolutionary thinkers.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founder of critical race theory

In the preface to the first volume of Capital, his magisterial critique of political economy, Marx writes, “My dialectical method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos [a Platonic construction of a mystical artisan fashioning and maintaining the physical universe] of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea.’ With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.”

Marx says it is not nothing else than, but it’s more complicated than this. Marx writes, “The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” He explains: “In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things [emphasis mine]. In its rational form [the form Marx would make it take] it is a scandal and an abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors [represented to today by the woke progressive], because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.”

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Before a reader objects that CRT wants to radically transform the United States, he must check his assumptions. I will take this up in my next blog entry, but quickly here, CRT is designed to prevent radical transformation of the West in the direction sought by Marx, that is, towards democratic socialism and the emancipation of the individual from capitalist control, to instead continue the fundamental societal transformation that began after the Civil War with the emergence of the corporate state and the transnationalist project to establish a new world order founded upon the logic of bureaucratic collectivism upon which will sit the new aristocracy. As I will explain in that pending essay, it was in the defeat of populism and the institutionalization of progressivism that the original struggle between left and right (and the meaning of those words) is negated. It is only now that the populists, however problematic the character of their consciousness, have remerged and are raising consciousness about the pending finalization of the corporatist neo-feudalist global order.

It is crucial to understand this point. Indeed, if you do not understand this you can neither understand Marx nor Hegel and only partially understand the present inflection point. (One of the problems I am attempting to address in my work is how that populism, however welcome it is in light of the alternative, lacks a Marxist character.) In a word, this difference is the linchpin. Hegel writes, “The state is the actuality of the ethical Idea. The march of God in the world, that is what the state is. The state is the actuality of concrete freedom [i.e. totalitarianism]. The strength of the state is lies in the unity of its universal end with the particular interest of individual [the individual subsumed into the nation in ethnic terms].” Elsewhere, Hegel writes, “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.” My commentary in brackets is to make sure you understand what Hegel mystifies. It is progressives who glorify the total state and the destruction of liberalism and republicanism. Their desire marks the terminal point of individual autonomy and liberty.

Marx is telling the reader that Hegel has matters upside-down. Marx is an atheist. He sees, as did Feuerbach, that Hegel’s appeal to God is an expression of alienation. Crucially, Hegel confuses the predicate and the subject. The world is not an expression of God, i.e., ideology, but rather God, i.e., ideology, is an expression of the world. Ideology is a mystification of the world because the world is corrupted by its division into social classes, a condition marked by exploitative relations. The solution to man’s woes is therefore not in religious perfection in a state with such a character (heavens no!), but the overthrow of existing material conditions, which evaporates ideology. As such, man’s consciousness becomes isometric with reality. In other words, the obstacles that mystify knowledge are removed and the lies at once exposed.

Georg Hegel (1770-1831), a key founder of German idealism

Marx explains in his 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “Had Hegel started with the real subjects as the bases of the state it would not have been necessary for him to let the state become subjectified in a mystical way. ‘However, the truth of subjectivity,’ says Hegel, ‘is attained only in a subject, and the truth of personality only in a person.’ This too is a mystification. Subjectivity is a characteristic of subjects and personality a characteristic of the person. Instead of considering them to be predicates of their subjects, Hegel makes the predicates independent and then lets them be subsequently and mysteriously converted into their subjects.”

Here, Marx brilliantly identifies the problem with idealism: reification, or the problem of misplaced concreteness, a fallacious move that turns abstractions into apparent concrete reality. You can see this explicit in CRT’s race essentialism, which treats individuals as mere personifications of abstract racial categories which are treated as concrete actors. Hence a disparity in a group-level statistical outcome is treated as if it were an individual act of racial discrimination, and, on this basis, a reason for appropriating the wealth produced by individuals seen only in terms of their racial categories—in a word “reparations.” CRT moves as a religion, replete with notions of collective guilt, collective punishment, and original sin.

Marx explains our present-day troubles one hundred and seventy-eight years before the moment: “The existence of the predicate is the subject; thus the subject is the existence of subjectivity, etc. Hegel makes the predicates, the object independent, but independent as separated from their real independence, their subject. Subsequently, and because of this, the real subject appears to be the result; whereas one has to start from the real subject and examine its objectification. The mystical substance becomes the real subject and the real subject appears to be something else, namely a moment of the mystical substance. Precisely because Hegel starts from the predicates of universal determination instead of from the real Ens (hypokimenou, subject), and because there must be a bearer of this determination, the mystical idea becomes this bearer. This is the dualism: Hegel does not consider the universal to be the actual essence of the actual, finite thing, i.e. of the existing determinate thing, nor the real Ens to be the true subject of the infinite.” Marx continues, concretely: “Accordingly, sovereignty, the essence of the state, is here first conceived to be an independent being; it is objectified. Then, of course, this object must again become subject. However the subject then appears to be a self-incarnation of sovereignty, which is nothing but the objectified spirit of the state’s subjects.”

As an ideology of the corporate state, critical race theory stands with Hegel and against Marx. CRT, helped by the corruption of Marcuse (whose most notorious student is Angela Davis, a CRT icon), is a regression to Hegel. CRT subsumes the individual into abstract categories organized around a racial ideology that perpetuate alienation. CRT is not a liberation ideology, as it claims, but a thought suppression system. CRT is a specific doctrine in the religion of racism, but it no less racist.

CRT hides its anti-Marxism behind the appeal to neo-Marxism and critical theory (which has fooled Rufo and his comrades), the particular brand of which rose in prominence because the ruling class understood its function in mystifying corporate power and bankrolled it, insinuating it into colleges and universities, embracing it in corporate board rooms, and now forcing it into our public schools. It is being installed in public education in order to raise up a generation subservient to the technocracy, which is what the first type of critical theory, with all its defects, endeavored to warn us about. The power elite seek a generation who will be incapable of knowing there was a time before totalitarian corporate governance by making present and future totalitarianism appear as the air we breathe.

* * *

The logic of the dialectic Marx employs is Hegel’s but with Hegel stood on his feet. This is a metaphor for rationally and empirically accessing the real world to explain illusions, rather than trying to grasp the real world by making its surface appearances the starting point. Critical race theory reverses this move, standing Hegel back on his head. In doing so, CRT turns Marxism upside-down, which is no Marxism at all. CRT cannot be Marxist whatever it says of itself. It must be neo-Hegelian. That’s its logic—as Marx himself showed.

Christopher Rufo and other populists cannot understand this because they do not bother to study Marxism, an endeavor to which I have devoted a lifetime. Of course, it’s not as if Rufo, James Lindsey, Jordan Peterson, and the rest would change their rhetoric if they did know this. So perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe they do know it, but mystify it to protect their turf—which today takes the form of dopamine hits on social media.

This confusing leftwing praxis with progressivism is the great error of populists and progressives alike. For those progressives who fancy themselves Marxists, the neo-Hegelianism they think is Marxism is a feature of their false consciousness. It prepares them for assumption into the corporate state. Believing CRT is stealth Marxism betrays their ignorance of Marxism, but it also exposes their ignorance of the history and purpose of progressivism. Their ignorance of both explains their faith in progressivism as leftwing praxis. I’m trying mightily to educate them, but they are remarkably resistant (it’s the same quality of resistance we see in their belittling of the pandemic truth movement). I’m up against the most basic of obstacles: the desire to not have to admit that what one believes in with all his might is a big lie.

Despite this error on the right, Rufo and his ilk correctly identify the concrete character of CRT—it is racist. Rufo does not believe this because he is right wing. Progressives would like for you to believe this because they desperately want to believe this. Accusing a person of being a witch is also self-serving; it keeps the accuser of question his religion. Rather Rufo believes this because he is not so deluded by progressivism that he can’t see it. Once you get your head out of wokeness, you cannot help not seeing it.

Because they operate from a right-librarian standpoint, populists intuitively understand that the emergence of the corporate state threatens not only individual liberty, but capitalism as we knew it. They can see that CRT is backed by corporate power—and that means something is terribly askew. A defect becomes a virtue. Perhaps no ideology comes without some insight.

To be sure, it sounds rather goofy to suppose a cabal of cultural Marxists is behind critical race theory. But the goofiness is fixed by admitting that CRT and the rest of the woke progressive clown show isn’t Marxists at all. It’s a right Hegelian movement that is ignorant of its origins and reactionary character. Because if CRT were actually Marxist (which it cannot possibly be), then you would likely know nothing about it because it would be nowhere.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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