NOTE: This is part 2 of a five-part series on Critical Race Theory. Part 1, “What is Critical Race Theory?,” covers the essentials of CRT.
- What is Marxism?
- What is Critical Theory?
- What is unique about Critical Theory?
- Is Critical Race Theory Marxist?
- Is all of Critical Race Theory Marxist?
- So, is Critical Race Theory Marxist?
- Recommended reading for CRT
Answering this question does not warrant a simple yes or no. Rather, we will take this opportunity to explore the similarities and differences between Marxism and Critical Race Theory (CRT). Hopefully, this will provide depth and clarity to an otherwise confusing, heated, and partisan debate.
First, here is a brief argument.
- Marxism says that society is split between oppressed and oppressors. Marxism is focused on material wealth and the power it gives the upper class in a capitalist society. This power is always used to oppress the lower class. The solution is abolishing private property.
- Critical Theory says that society is split between oppressors and oppressed, but social power also defines those boundaries. The majority group defines what is “normal,” and any morality that restricts minorities’ freedom is therefore oppression.
- Critical Race Theory builds on this and says that, in America, white people continue to oppress minorities, not necessarily through individual prejudice, but because they hold more wealth and impose what is “normal” on minorities.
Therefore, one can draw parallels between CRT and Marxism.
As I note in “What is Critical Theory?,” let’s distinguish between the worldview of CRT and the followers of CRT. The often cynical, truth-abandoning worldview of CRT shares roots with the worldview of Marxism because they both believe that society is always split between oppressed and oppressor and that life revolves around this power split. So, when CRT provides an ideological, worldview perspective, it aligns closely with Marxism.
However, many scholars have other worldviews and use CRT like a microscope to examine problems rather than glasses through which everything is perceived. As such, CRT can be used as a tool to see the problem of power abuse and race inequality but must not become lenses through which everything is seen.
This is because much of CRT simply strives for better equality among black and white Americans by studying history, sociology, and politics.
What is Marxism?
While this could be a long paper all to itself, we’ll just give the basics.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels begins with these words: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In other words, all of human history can be summarized by a conflict between classes of people trying to gain power for themselves.
Marxism argues that capitalism turns society into a “cold” calculation of efficiency. Capitalism extorts the underclass by using them as means to an end, turning working-class people into machines or “commodities.” Marxism argues that the way capitalism uses property benefits people in power (the bourgeoisie) far more than it benefits the lower class (the proletariat). So, per Marxism, private property needs to be abolished.
The Communist Manifesto says that when the upper class defends private property as protecting freedom, it is a “selfish misconception that induces [the bourgeoisie] to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from [their] present mode.” In other words, selfishness by the upper class means that their ideals, like human rights and freedom, in the case of property at least, are actually just a subjective defense of their own power and abuse.
According to Marxism, so-called “eternal truths” like religion and morality are actually in constant flux. The “only fact” of history is oppression and power struggles. Anyone trying to talk about universal ideals (like religion, morality, or philosophy) is trying to take advantage of the lower class or wrest power from the upper class. For instance, if someone says that democracy is the best kind of government, they are making a universal claim that democracy is best for the world. That kind of claim, according to Marxism, is inevitably used to oppress people.
What is Critical Theory?
To properly understand this question about Critical Race Theory (CRT), we must first examine Critical Theory (CT). CT started in the 1930s with Max Horkheimer, who began a German school of thought called the Frankfurt School of Philosophy. While this definition refers to Critical Theory in a narrow sense, any theory that critiques other ideas at its core can be considered a “critical theory,” e.g., feminism.
CT melded social science and philosophy, grounding its worldview in Marxism. CT posits that people act and believe according to power dynamics. While Marxism focuses on material wealth and private property, Critical Theory focuses on social standing and beliefs. As the name suggests, CT as a theory is critical of other philosophies, undermining them by suggesting that the thinkers have ulterior, underlying motives that urge them to keep their own people in power.
We can imagine that each person has a kind of “social” privilege as a group, a concept called “hegemony.” It also states that knowledge is tainted by this never-ending social struggle for power and freedom from influence because hegemony also refers to the power that the acceptance of ideas gives someone. For example, if 60 percent of Americans believe that everyone should be able to jaywalk, that idea’s acceptance could give power to a politician who wants to make jaywalking legal. If a group of people has “idea-power,” that can help their social standing and give them hegemony.
To unpack that, let’s consider a parable.
Imagine a wolf gives an eloquent, thorough argument with evidence and logic that concludes he should protect an unprotected, innocent herd of sheep. He insists he’s being objective. At the end of his exposition, he also reasonably suggests that the herd must pay him one sheep to eat per day for his protection. He argues that he is more powerful according to the universal laws of nature; it’s just the way things are. No matter how rational his arguments are, at the end of the day, it’s simply a wolf eating sheep. And what can the sheep do about it? Unfair as it is, they must accept his terms.
No matter how forceful the upper-class arguments are, at the end of the day, it’s simply one group oppressing another.
For instance, a European, upper-class philosopher in the 1700s is going to argue that people of different cultures are inferior to his own, not because it is correct or because he’s drawing from a source of objective truth, but because it is advantageous to him and his tribe. It justifies colonizing and “civilizing” less developed peoples. Tragically, this argument was often made in defense of slavery.
Ideas that say certain values are universal and rational ultimately reinforce “existing social arrangements and convinces the dominated classes that the existing order is inevitable,” as CRT scholar Kimberle Crenshaw puts it.
According to CT, so-called “objective” knowledge is therefore used primarily as a cover for biased motives of people with power. This creation of an advantage isn’t necessarily intentional. CT holds that this can be subconscious or socially pressured through already-existing ways of thinking. That eighteenth-century philosopher may be convinced of his own objectivity, but it doesn’t change that his beliefs are biased.
It’s not as though they believe that “objective” or “universal” as a label is most often wrongly used to cover up a lie; they actually believe that there is no such thing as disinterested, neutral knowledge. Truth develops with societies. The eighteenth-century European philosopher isn’t objectively incorrect according to CT. He is instead “wrong” only insofar as his views violate other people’s freedom.
By nature, the underclass must overthrow the overclass. It is an eternal conflict, just like according to Marxism. In principle, those in power protect their interests. This means that, like Marxism, CT splits everyone into either the oppressed or the oppressor because those in power will always oppress those without power.
As a result, all social problems are tied to oppression, and, crucially, no belief is neutral.
What is unique about Critical Theory?
In The Coming Tsunami, Dr. Jim Denison writes: “In line with Marxist teaching, critical theorists view morality and human nature through the lens of social constructs. In their view, the shared interests of an oppressor class constrain and determine reality to a very high degree. Those who prosper have, by definition, organized the social order so as to exploit others and benefit themselves. Almost every social problem we face is therefore the fault of an oppressor class.”
So, CT applied Marxist thinking not only to economics as a social construct but also to anything else that a society defines socially or legally. A few examples according to them are sexuality, race, sex, science, and politics (see Horkheimer’s Traditional and Critical Theory and Marcuse in Eros and Civilization).
At the center of CT is the unification of action and theory. CT is not merely descriptive; CT by its own standards must instigate social change that moves the oppressed toward emancipation and freedom. Due to the nature of the philosophy, CT mostly defines itself in opposition to other theories and ideas, without any care to provide its own unified positive views about reality, except that, generally, we should always fall forward, toward liberation and freedom.
This school of thought continued to develop throughout the twentieth century, strongly influencing Europe and America. Herbert Marcuse, a CT thinker, even worked in the US government during WWII.
Christianity also falls under this sweeping critique. Since Christians comprise the majority of America (and, for a while, Europe too), and we make objective truth claims about human nature (e.g., “God created only two sexes, male and female), CT, therefore, casts biblical Christians as oppressors on the basis of its claims to moral objectivity.
As a good real-world example of this philosophy playing out at a cultural level: CT philosophers would say that the Christian claim that marriage should be between one man and one woman is a fine claim for Christians. But, to say that it’s true for all people is wrong, and that’s an example of the majority (heterosexual Christians) justifying their oppression of the minority homosexual population.
Is Critical Race Theory Marxist?
First, we’ll begin with an often-said phrase by Dr. Jim Denison: “When I say Marxist, I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense.” If Critical Race Theory is, in some ways, Marxist, that does not make it wrong in and of itself. Critical Theory undeniably draws from Marxism.
So, how about Critical Race Theory? Is this application of CT Marxist?
America was founded (on principle, if not in practice) as an egalitarian country. This means that it does not promise “happiness;” it promises the “pursuit of happiness.” It promises that each citizen will have their rights protected. It does not promise equal starting points, and it certainly does not promise equal outcomes. At the same time, it claims to protect the natural rights of each individual. Among them is private property.
According to CRT, this system sounds like a great setup if you have a good starting point. And that “if not in practice” caveat I gave is also what CRT focuses on, since African Americans were not only generally viewed as an inferior race and many were enslaved at that time.
As discussed previously, Marxism states that societies are generally built on a distinction between oppressed and oppressors, such that the majority are by definition oppressors. And this argument is often used by proponents of CRT. But, Marxism focuses on material wealth and is far more radical in its calls for revolution.
According to CRT, since white people overwhelmingly hold the most wealth in America and have a higher social standing as a group, white people also hold the most power. This is true (a) because white people make up the majority, (b) because it is entrenched in the culture, and (c) because white people have the higher wealth on average. This is demonstrated by evidence of persistent gaps between races in America.
And, a fundamental supposition of CRT is that those in power serve their own interests. Therefore, the white majority, which holds most of the power (socially and monetarily), will not easily relinquish that power. This is one of the central tenets of CRT given in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.
Therefore, if we protect the status quo with the veil of capitalism or meritocracy (everyone gets a proportion equal to the results of their work), then we are preserving the people group that already has the advantaged starting point: white people.
This is why the main proponents of CRT say that capitalism is an entrenched enemy of racial equality. This includes Ibram X. Kendi and Derrick Bell.
For instance, in And We Are Not Saved, Bell imagines a black, female civil rights lawyer traveling back in time to appear before the founding fathers as they are enacting the “three-fifths compromise.” This amendment said that black men are only counted as three-fifths of a citizen when considering the taxation and voting weight for each state.
In the story, she debates with the founding fathers and hears their side. The conclusion of the tale is that while most had tendencies of racial prejudice, it was not at the center of most of the founders’ motivations. Instead, they were primarily motivated by practical, economic reasons. In other words, the so-called practical benefit of capitalism is precisely what continued racist slavery. Yes, it was actually racist beliefs against black people as well, but the main motivator was pragmatism, not ill will.
At the end of this brilliantly written work, Bell shows that the only hope for black Americans to end racism would be to join impoverished white Americans to fight for a new vision of equality. In a way, Bell’s vision becomes not about ending “racism” per se but about diminishing the capitalism he believes keeps black Americans in the status quo position, which is overrepresented in poverty, underrepresented in the wealthy. So, it seems that a natural next step for Bell is toward undercutting capitalism and furthering socialism. This is at least one major lesson of the book, if not the only one.
Bell writes, “Both history and experience tell us that each new victory over injustice both removes a barrier to racial equality and reveals another obstacle that we must, in turn, grapple with and—eventually—overcome.” In other words, unless everyone is equal in power, there will always be the oppressed and oppressor. And that reveals CT’s influence.
Additionally, Ibram X. Kendi writes that to be “anti-racist” is to be “anti-racist capitalist.” While he doesn’t argue for abolishing free markets or property altogether, he does believe in redistributing wealth to end large discrepancies until blacks and whites are on relatively equal footing economically. Insofar as capitalism is opposed to that, it is racist. He is also for “anti-racist discrimination,” meaning discrimination is good, but only if it adds more to black Americans and helps tip scales to equal balance.
Is all of Critical Race Theory Marxist?
No. Since CRT also looks at social norms, it most often has little to do with Marxism (which only deals with material wealth), except that they both critique society. Additionally, CRT often reexamines American history. And it’s not necessarily Marxist to say that unbridled capitalism fostered slavery, or, if it is, it’s a Marxist observation that seems plausible.
Indeed, many parts of CRT are not inherently Marxist. Even if CRT is heavily influenced by Marxism, that does not mean we should reject all of CRT. Some of Marxism seems to have been a good critique of the capitalist society of that day. For instance, greed motivated many companies to use child labor, taking advantage of the desperation of the poor. It’s important to note that while Marxism may not be all evil, the utter failure of communist, Marxist states in the twentieth century directly led to the deaths of tens of millions of people. It’s hard to overstate the misery and destruction that Marxism has caused.
All of that to say, while CRT advocates certainly critique capitalism as a large part of America’s past and continued racism, most do not want to completely abolish property. Nor do they necessarily want to establish a Marxist state. Many, however, are striving toward Marxist ideals of equality of outcomes, with the focus on group identity.
In Kendi’s case, for instance, this does not mean we should have everyone take equal pay but that anti-racist policy should mean policies that would decrease the wealth gap between black and white Americans.
So, is Critical Race Theory Marxist?
At the end of the day, it is undeniable that Critical Race Theory ties closely with the philosophy of Critical Theory and Critical Theory heavily draws from Marxism by saying that classes of people exist unavoidably in oppressed/oppressor relationships.
So, in a very general, philosophical sense, CRT draws from Marxism. Most CRT advocates deny these ties, or are silent on the connection. Many will say that searching for connections is a witch hunt or red herring. But we think that intellectual honesty demands we recognize their ties and believe that it can help us as Americans determine what’s good and right.
CRT is also not Marxist in key ways. CRT adherents almost never advocate for the abolition of property, and they focus on social issues, not just economic ones. Some draw from CRT simply to critique how American society can be built better and with great equality for people across racial lines. They study history, sociology, and politics to work for a better solution. Many CRT advocates are religious, whereas Marxism says religion is “the opium of the masses.” Many CRT proponents consider themselves patriots, like Crenshaw.
While there is room for debate in these areas, many areas of CRT are simply not Marxist. There is the ideological CRT, which is cynical and rejects any claim to universal value, stating that America is divided along oppressed and oppressor and that group identity is the only way to see things. That version of CRT is more akin to Marxism and is indeed dangerous.
For many, however, CRT is simply a tool to show how inequality existed in America and still does to this day.
The Coming Tsunami – Jim Denison
Cynical Theories – Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self – Carl R. Trueman
Does Silence Equal Complicity With Racism? – Jerry Wagner
What Does the Bible Say About Racism? – Jim Denison
How to be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi
Critical Race Theory – Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Critical Race Theory: the Key Writings that Formed the Movement – Edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, Thomas.
Seeing White (podcast) – Scene on Radio
The Color of Compromise – Jemar Tisby
White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo
The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
And We Are Not Saved – Derrick Bell
Traditional and Critical Theories – Max Horkheimer
Why Social Justice is not Biblical Justice – Scott David Allen
Cynical Theories – Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Critical Race Theory: What Christians Need to Know – Sitara Roden
Faultines – Voddie Baucham
The 1619 Project: A Critique – Edited by Philip W. Magness.
Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair – Duke L. Kwon , Gregory Thompson
Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth – Thaddeus Williams
Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement – Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer
Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory – Edited Fred Leland Rush
The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Critical Theory – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Critical Race Theory, the New Intolerance, and Its Grip on America – Jonathan Butcher and Mike Gonzalez.
The Critical Legal Studies Movement – Harvard Law Review, Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Critical Legal Theory – Cornell Law School
Philosophical Methodologies of Critical Race Theory– Lewis Gordon
Toward a Critical Race Psychology – Salter, Phia; Adams, Glenn
To Tackle Critical Theory in K-12 Classroom, Start with Colleges of Education – Lindsey M. Burke, Mike Gonzalez.
Critical Race Theory, Race Equity, and Public Health: Toward Antiracism Praxis – Chandra L. Ford, Collins O. Airhihenbuwa.