Let’s begin with the image of Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon and Judith Butler as Disney princesses. The Disney princess is an American version of something that has never existed there. Princesses (including fictional ones) are a European phenomenon. The Disney version is a European cultural phenomenon simplified and glamourized and generally dumbed down and thus made comprehensible to the de-cultured American child, and particularly the de-cultured American girl. The feminism of our Princesses is not in itself the subject of this essay, which is the genesis and mechanics of American Critical Social Justice Theory; but it, and they, play such an important role in the history of this movement that they above all deserve to wear the big dresses and the sparkly tiaras.
To understand the European connection, we need to go back to an innocent time when the importance of toxic masculinity and white privilege had not yet been realized, and Europe was preoccupied with more trivial issues like the 20 million dead in the First World War and the prospect of something similar happening again due to the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists in Germany. Between the two wars, most countries in Europe had some kind of fascist movement, combining nationalism, militarism and usually anti-semitism. This was often conflated with anti-communism, as many leading communists were indeed Jewish, like Marx himself, and it was an easy way for nationalist leaders to attack the political threat represented by an overtly international Marxist movement.
This was the background against which the Frankfurt School, and therefore Critical Theory, was organized. The Institute for Social Research of the Goethe Institute of Frankfurt was founded in 1923, originally as a place for mainstream Marxist activism, dominated by the Communist Party, but evolving into a magnet for socially concerned intellectuals, including many of great distinction, from a much wider, and less dogmatic, background.
One way of widening the intellectual base without giving up too much in terms of ideals was to reassess Marxism. Although Karl Marx had relocated to London in order to work in the British Museum Reading Room, drink warm beer by the gallon, and await the Revolution he confidently expected to come first in England, he was still a German author and thinker, and so a German movement was better-placed than anybody else to freshen up his -ism. After all, Lenin and the gang had clearly got the wrong end of the stick, promoting the coming age with retrograde methods like mass starvation and political show trials. Lefties in Britain were more interested in milquetoast versions of the Revolution like Fabian Socialism, with its namby-pamby talk of mass education and free health-care, while the French as usual were busy going mad.
Karl Marx, the Germans knew, was best understood as a kind of German Idealist philosopher. He explicitly set out to avoid this fate, with Dialectical Materialism supposed to provide a brand new method and logic, but nobody was buying this in Weimar Germany’s hyper-intellectual elite. For there were many other such claims to be taken into consideration. The coming man after a lifetime of effort, and a rising star in his old age, was the Viennese alienist Sigmund Freud. Freud had laboured in obscurity for many years, and for some time had proposed to unite his developing theories of neurosis and psychoanalysis with those of his friend Wilhelm Fliess, who believed that sexual disorders were explained not by the psyche or the Oedipus Complex but by the nose. He operated on Sigmund’s nose, and also shared with his friend and collaborator the secret of using cocaine to anaesthetize the nose in the interests of good mental health. They would get together regularly for such therapy sessions at which they planned a joint work. Fate separated them and doomed Fleiss to undeserved obscurity, but once Freud was released from their partnership, he achieved a kind of intellectual super-stardom few have ever rivalled.
Psycho-analysis, then, seen not as a weird fantasy but as an exciting new science, was on the table as much as Dialectical Materialism. It might on the face of it seem like an unlikely project to marry Marxism and Freudianism, but the new men were equal to the task. For there was a lot more than that going into the mix.
Marx being a German Idealist meant that he could be interpreted as a Hegelian. Hegel’s philosophy of history, in particular, presented itself as a precursor of the Marxist theory, and here again, you had to be German to get to the bottom of it. After a false start as a theologian, and having dabbled in astronomy and other matters at that time thought to be the preserve of the learned amateur, Hegel had found his niche as a university philosopher, and the tone of his work was fixed forever for posterity by his excited declaration that Napoleon entering Jena in 1806 was ‘the World-Soul on horseback’. His output, however, was not at all in the nature of witty aphorisms. He went for long, dense works using obscure German words like Aufhebung, claimed to mean ‘sublation’, and concepts to do with the progress of the Geist or Spirit. His theories are complicated and his books distinguished by a curiously dull character for all their scope and ambition. In death he managed another memorable bon mot, his last words being ‘There was only one man who ever understood me, and even he didn’t understand me.’ This is not surprising, as some time spent with The Phenomenology of Spirit will soon confirm.
However, we who are not German must defer to the experts, and the fact that Hegel’s fans have Johann Wolfgang Goethe at their head, the general opinion still today being that he was the greatest thinker of his age, must earn him respect if not much affection. He was for instance an important theorist of the concept of Freedom. Less attractive for English-speaking philosophers, but of great interest to the French, are his opinions on Being, Nothingness and similar concepts.
However, his main interest in the context of the Frankfurt School was that a focus on Hegel and his philosophy of history allows the German-minded thinker (and we should never forget that European philosophy is primarily German, the British and French streams being largely two schools of interpretation of different sub-sets of German ideas) to construct a neat progression backwards from Marx to Hegel to Immanuel Kant. Hegel was an original thinker and not just a commentator on Kant, but this connection is nevertheless a reasonable one. Kant too had grand theories of law and morality, even if these were something of a side dish to his main work on logic and metaphysics—which Hegel also addressed.
A minor detail of Kant’s contribution to the Frankfurt School is the word ‘Critical’. Kant’s principal works are the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement, and this is collectively sometimes known as his ‘Critical Philosophy’, though that is a misleading name for it. The word ‘Critical’ was thus already established as a serious philosophical term in German.
The connection between Kant’s main philosophy, more accurately described as Transcendental Idealism, and Marxism is more to do with its formal features than with Kant’s well-meaning opinions on ethics and politics. Germans love systems, and Kant’s philosophy is about the most systematic there is. Basically Aristotelian in its reliance on logic, it establishes a theory about space and time as logical categories which was at once original and convincing. The link to Hegel and then to Marx, though, comes in his treatment of some logical contradictions, which he calls the Antinomies of Pure Reason. An example of this kind of contradiction is that between Free Will (the belief that I act because I want to) and Determinism (the belief that my actions, like everything else in the universe, are determined by physical laws). Kant wanted to argue that both halves of these contradictions could be true at the same time. Hegel, as part of his attempt to create one vast philosophical system including everything (i.e., to out-German Kant) wanted these contradictions to be explained by the forces of history, so that they would have different answers at different periods of history, and this approach definitely influenced Marx in constructing his theory of history, according to which objective conditions caused societies to go through definite stages, the overarching narrative being that of control of the means of production. Kant’s contradictions were now transformed into the dialectic of historical forces.
The actual link between Kant, Hegel and the Frankfurt School was the work of a complicated Hungarian, György Lukács, a communist intellectual who also had the aristocratic title of Baron in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and who, before his conversion to Marxism, had studied German philosophy, including Kant and Hegel. He had been instrumental in formulating what is now called ‘Western Marxism’ right at the beginning of the Frankfurt School’s existence: setting it on a path that diverged from the orthodox one of following the Soviet Line, and arguing in particular to include the analysis of cultural factors and not just economic data.
There were some other materials brought to the table, including an interest in sociology, and especially the sociology of Max Weber, who had written extensively on the sociology of religion as well on such socio-economic issues as the Protestant Work Ethic. From this rich and varied intellectual mix a new kind of Marxism did indeed emerge—although Lukács, the man mainly responsible for this, disappeared from the group, spending time in the USSR and then being involved in the leadership of the failed Hungarian Soviet Republic after the war. In the 1920s, though, he had preached cultural rebirth, and it was on this framework that the Frankfurt School erected its mix of psychoanalysis, Marxism, sociology, historical analysis, artistic criticism and mainstream German philosophy.
As it developed its independence from the Communist Party and thus from the Soviet line, the Institute for Social Research adopted the idea of integrating all the different kinds of social, economic and philosophical sciences (though still on the basis of Marxism), and as this was happening, the group was faced with the very real threat of the Nazi party. Apart from anything else, a lot of the members of the Frankfurt School were Jewish. So in 1933 the School moved its base of operations to Geneva, and in 1935 went on to New York, under the wing of Columbia University. It stayed there throughout the war and until 1953, and this irruption of the cream of German left-wing thought had a profound effect on academic life in the English-speaking world.
The Director of the Institute, Max Horkheimer, set out an exciting new programme in his 1937 work Traditional and Critical Theory, introducing ideas which are now mainstream in Social Justice programmes. Cultural Hegemony, Dominant Ideology… and a constant underlying idea that the purpose of intellectual work is to prevent people from being dominated, oppressed and exploited by capitalism. However, if you look carefully at the title of Horkheimer’s book, you will see that it is not just called ‘Critical Theory’. It is not just a programme of establishing some new buzz-words.
In order to understand the starting point of the Frankfurt School and see the purpose of its Critical Theory, you must also understand what its members understood to be Traditional Theory. This was still that pre-war mix that you could characterize as the prevailing progressive German intellectual background. Kant and Hegel as well as Weber and Freud. There were also some specific recent academic philosophical trends, also German. So Critical Theory necessarily included discussion of these elements, which made it hard going for non-Germans. Even in the American phase, it was still a German school, with Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Erich Fromm becoming famous names, and the whole movement then progressively falling under the spell of Jürgen Habermas from the late 1950s until today—and also returning to its roots by becoming principally concerned with events in Germany itself after the Institute moved back to (West) Germany in 1953.
The principal solution that the Frankfurt School found to the problem of the purpose of Theory was to attempt the criticism OF MARXISM. I capitalize that as a first step in pointing out some features of the gulf that separates what passes for Critical Theory in America and the English-speaking world today from its distinguished German beginnings. The situation is even more extreme than it might at first appear. For it is not just Marxism that is criticized. It is the Frankfurt School’s understanding of Marxist philosophy as part of the German Idealist tradition, and in particular as having roots in Kant and Hegel. The Soviet version of Marxism, then, is not much of a guide. The critical approach means developing Marxist concepts, still using the same kind of language, but now adding new theoretical developments, basically as a project of modernization, to take account of developments that Marx had not foreseen (i.e. had got wrong) in the nineteenth century, and making use of the best analysis from advanced thinkers in other fields.
So what did our Disney princesses make of this? To flesh them out a little, in reality these three leading ladies of feminism are respectively a female supremacist legal theorist (MacKinnon), a loudmouth extremist activist (Dworkin) and a polysyllabic naïve post-structuralist and post-modernist (Butler).
The first thing to make clear is that this was not just a question of learned Europeans and American yahoos. Columbia University is a serious organization and there were plenty of intelligent and studious people who listened to what their German visitors had to say. But the Critical part was so much more exciting than the Traditional part that little by little the message seemed to change. Marxism, the Frankfurters said, offered not labour camps but Democracy. Social Justice. Freedom. Liberation. All that stuff about the antinomies of pure reason seemed miles and miles away. So a kind of Neo-Marxism Lite was established as the academic norm among progressive lefties, its jargon becoming their lingua franca. The language of Critical Theory was lapped up like mother’s milk, and especially its ironclad moral superiority. Marxism could be explained as the culmination of centuries of philosophical endeavour, and its aims were simply the perfection of human society. The greatest minds of the twentieth century had now taken up where Marx had left off, and were undertaking a new kind of academic work, Critical Theory, the only kind of work which could ever deliver the desired result of a perfect, just and equal society.
When the Germans left (though some stayed on), can-do Americans were there, ready to take over this noble project. To some extent, they just adapted the aims to local conditions, with especial stress on Liberation, given the timing. The political eclipse of the Southern Democrats and a change of heart in the Supreme Court had changed the balance of power in society, and an explosion of black radicalism needed a new way of thinking—so the radicalism of the Frankfurt School found a new outlet in a New Left that now included Malcolm X and Angela Davis. And then the feminists moved in.
You can see exactly how it happened. The methods established by the Frankfurt School could be described as follows. Firstly you need something to criticize, and that means you have to explain what you are criticizing. Since you have established that it is only Marxism that is worth criticizing, you need to set out the new/old neo-Kantian, Young Hegelian, psycho-analytic, pragmatist (etc.) position that needs criticizing. Then you apply the latest ideas being developed through the modernizing activity of critical analysis. And the result is that you have made the world into a better place, one step closer to the establishment of true Marxism and the resulting transformation of society into its perfected and final form.
The problem that appeared when the challenge to the dominant ideology suddenly had to mean opposing the patriarchy rather than capitalist oppression was that putting the new dogmas into a Marxist framework was basically impossible. ‘One becomes a woman’ was for a long time the only known theoretical slogan of feminism, as ‘War is the continuation of policy by other means’ is the only principle of warfare that the average military officer has ever heard of. As far as I know, nobody succeeded in translating this into the language of objective changes in control of the means of production. As things went on, the contradictions only got worse. The French writer Monique Wittig, the first feminist author of note to swing the debate in a lesbian direction, declared that there was only one sex, the female; whereas another widely quoted pioneer, the Belgian Luce Irigaray, stated that there is only one sex, the male. But seeing as these authors were both part of the sisterhood, it was necessary to find a mode of argument that would allow statements like these to coexist with no problems of logic or consistency. There is also the delicate matter that they were both making directly false statements; but there must be no inconvenient questions of fact. No law of excluded middle. They both had to be correct.
The rhetorical style of the Neo-Marxism Lite of the progressive left provided a ready-made answer. The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School included a very useful convention. A Marxist position being criticized would not be wrong exactly, as Marxism in general is ipso facto correct. The theoretical analysis in the criticism is only a move to a deeper and more modern understanding of the truth.
There was an important difference, however. The Marxist positions being analysed had been discussed and worked over and related to Kant and Hegel and Aristotle and the World-Spirit and all kinds of stuff, and importantly were internally consistent, to the extent that Marxism is internally consistent. Marx being a German author in the idealist tradition, that is a pretty high level of consistency. Feminism didn’t have this luxury. The rule seemed to be that there are no rules. Say or write anything you want. So one of our princesses, Andrea Dworkin, for a long time the most visible radical feminist in America, started writing that all heterosexual intercourse is a violation of women, and that when men are liberated they will stop having erections and start making love like lesbians. The SCUM manifesto by Valerie Solanas suggested eliminating the male sex entirely by violence. So the simple rhetorical move is this: treat any and all such statements as if they too were the product of hundreds of years of intellectual effort. Be reverential.
The convention of assuming that any Marxist statement is correct is replaced by the convention that any feminist statement is correct, but with the difference that as there is no actual system of thought behind it, it no longer matters if such statements agree with each other, even approximately. Direct contradictions are fine. Then it is just a matter of constructing paragraphs, chapters, articles and whole books using this method. A weird kind of flow establishes itself. So and so says this. But so and so says this. This is precisely the embodiment of non-genital political discursiveness. But as so-and-so reminds us….
A refinement of this system, one which makes it appear more ‘critical’, is to start with some implausible overstatement of what men do, or what the patriarchy does, or something like that. Generate a little tension, a little resentment. Then string together some vaguely similar-sounding statements, or ones with some loose thematic connection, anyway, by authors you approve of, or just make them up yourself. Then draw some over-complicated conclusion that does not follow from what you have just written. The beauty of this method is that your questionable conclusion can then itself form the subject of a similar string of non sequiturs at some future date. This closes the loop, so the process becomes completely self-generating. There is no need to have any consistent theoretical base, there is no need even for a pretence at logic. Logic, after all, is part of the masculinist hegemony. There is also no need to make any pretence of being interested in authors with a different point of view.
Now to be fair, not all feminist writing is like this. Catharine MacKinnon, for example, is a legal scholar who has dealt with serious matters such as rape and abuse, and she even seems to have some awareness of the general situation: ‘In my opinion, no feminism worthy of the name is not methodologically post-Marxist’, she wrote in 1983, by which I take her to be referring to this Lite version, and endorsing exactly this method of producing text. Andrea Dworkin’s blunt anti-men statements didn’t make much pretence at any kind of academic underpinning. ‘Rape is the paradigmatic sexual act’.
But all this is prologue. Feminism has other resources, notably the naïve post-structuralism represented by Princess Butler, increasingly dressed up in the New Clothes of post-modernism, and as the quality of the arguments really don’t matter, this was just a transitional phase. They didn’t need to rely on this rhetorical repertoire. But what the feminism of the 1970s and 1980s transitioned to was something worse. The main crime of feminist scholarship is just the waste of resources. Printing unreadable books, holding useless courses, agreeing automatically with your co-religionists, disagreeing automatically with anyone else… But everyone could see more or less what was going on, and after all in the end the feminist project does have something worthwhile in it.
The next phase of Critical Theory, though, took this feminist model and gradually applied it to a wider spectrum of issues, and the results are catastrophic. Critical Social Justice is not just hostile to men. It is hostile to everything, including learning itself, and seeks to close down the academic enterprise. Indeed, in some institutions it has succeeded.
The closed-loop model of criticism means you never have to take in any information from outside. And what seems to happen is that your chief criticism of someone will be that their positions are not virtuous enough. With feminism, this has backfired, as the search for more and more radical positions has led to the trans revolution, and women who have made a living for decades out of diffuse man-hating talk, maybe without even really meaning it, suddenly find that they are TERFS and past their sell-by date; but it is difficult to see how anything similar can happen when what you are against is not just men but the whole of society, and when even in your dreams you have no prospect of redemption in the form of perfect Marxism, or a lesbian paradise with no men at all, or the kind of feminist legal tyranny that MacKinnon advocates.
There is the same assumption that the only arguments worth registering are arguments that you agree with but feel don’t go far enough, or that are somehow incomplete in other ways. But now there is also the absence of any possible solution. What is social justice? You might naively think that it is justice applied to society, but that is obviously not it. Justice, as everyone knows, is blind, and just as Catharine MacKinnon wants to have a version of justice that is not blind at all, but provides different outcomes for men and women according to whether the result tends to end male domination or not, ‘social justice’ seems to be some special kind of justice, some kind of euphemism, like talking about a social disease. It now includes the strand of feminism discussed above, but also apparently applies the same standards to sexual minorities, various other minorities such as the physically and mentally handicapped, and, most destructively of all, to ‘race’.
It is not actually race that is the issue if our frame of reference is the human race. In Europe or Africa or India the matter looks completely different. It is only in the USA and Brazil that you have the situation where a large minority population is made up of the descendants of former slaves, unequally integrated into society. In Brazil a lot of them live in dangerous ghettoes where the only economy is the drug economy, and in some American cities it is not much better. But to call this a matter of race is very misleading. Suggesting that through coercive measures of some kind you can undo the effects of slavery and somehow create ‘social justice’ on a racial basis is clearly a fantasy. What measures can realistically be taken that are not already being taken? A huge fortune is spent on education, with all kinds of attempts to redress the balance, and these attempts mostly fail. Is the solution really to insist on more of the same measures? The social justice agenda seems to have another aim, namely to create the maximum possible racial tension, by insisting on a picture nobody can do anything about and encouraging as much emotionalism as possible about it.
In Brazil, the emancipation of slaves had a different kind of result. In the United States, the process led to new patterns of black employment, either in industry or in agriculture, often under unfair and discriminatory conditions, and with the apartheid of Jim Crow arising as a new basis for the oppression of the freedmen. In Brazil, a huge and much less developed country, a lot of slaves were simply told to leave their plantations with the news that they were now free, and there were no jobs available anywhere. So they congregated in large shanty towns and did their best to live under conditions of absolute poverty. These shanty towns were the origin of the system of favelas where the poor are still concentrated in Brazil today. However, the degree of racial mixing has been so great that the people living in the favelas are not all black, and the people in the nice houses are not all white. As in all of Latin America, the ‘white’ population is predominantly mestizo, and the mixed-race poor are certainly blacker on average than the mixed-race middle class, and much blacker than the predominantly European-heritage economic elite: but even so, the tensions in society are seen more reasonably as social problems between rich and poor. What good would it do to tell them it was all a racial issue?
Brazil is one of the most economically unequal societies in the world, and not even the recent experiment with radical socialist politics seems to be able to change this. But the United States is not far behind, and the worship of wealth and the dream of economic success as the main driver of society necessarily produce mass poverty as the other side of the coin. It is preposterous to suggest that this is a system based on deliberately oppressing women and gays and blacks and the disabled and so on. The worship of money is the root of all evil. Doesn’t everybody already know that? And yet the brainwashed poor in the United States continue to vote against higher taxes for the rich because they believe that one day they are going to be rich and so think they are protecting their own interests. It is a voluntary system and nothing to do with oppression. If anything, it is the product of freedom.
But just as the feminist narrative spiralled out of control and became the gender catastrophe, the social justice agenda has moved from pro-black initiatives to anti-white ideas, as if the way to improve the condition of other races is to punish white people. What realistic prospect is there of this ever happening outside the narrow confines of the institutions of higher education? It is another policy whose only possible result can be to make things worse. That, indeed, seems to be the general aim, and cynically one can follow the money. How many academics are now paid to complain about social injustice full time in a professional capacity? How many administrators are paid to dream up ridiculous schemes to draw attention to it? What do they care if the entire educational process is being sabotaged by this attention to useless ideas and policies that don’t work?
The paranoid recycling of grievances has led to the invention of the theory of intersective oppression, as a means of finding more and more finely-tuned sources of outrage, and since the alleged aim of changing society is now so far-fetched as to be practically speaking impossible—what model of society could ever rectify the tiny gradations of oppressions now alleged to exist?—what has been instituted instead is the aim of launching a wide-ranging system of local oppression to get some kind of revenge: an ideal of retributive oppression. If there was some way of oppressing Bill Gates and Warren Buffett it might make some kind of sense, but as there clearly isn’t, and the wider society just rumbles on as usual, oppressing the student body plus selected faculty is the only available tool. In fact, the most reliable method is to get them to oppress themselves. All men clearly need oppressing, as do all straight people. All white people also need oppressing, so if you are white, straight and male, you need three times as much corrective oppression, and white, straight and female still earns you a double dose.
Once again, it is the heroines of feminism who can take the credit for this idea that the solution to being oppressed is to oppress other people for revenge. From MacKinnon’s lofty ideals of one law for the oppressed and another for the oppressors to the brutalist ‘kill all men’ chants of Swedish activists, there is an overriding idea that it is not by raising women up but by dragging men down that the job will be done. They are still out front, with talk of mansplaining and manspreading and a widespread belief that it is the job of privileged white women to police the incipient thought crimes of an entire sex. Does this do anything at all to help the situation of women who really are radically oppressed, meaning those women in poor countries living under social and religious systems that keep them in absolute subjection? But this seemingly no longer matters. Checking your privilege is the stuff.
The rhetorical device of substituting recycled self-criticism for the real criticism of society is largely to blame. It certainly defeats the academic and scientific impulse to real discussion and the destructive criticism of bad ideas. This is now verboten. It has effectively sealed off this whole ‘debate’ that is not a debate from any outside interference. Like feminism in an earlier phase, it has become a contest to find the most exaggerated and superficially virtuous positions, with virtue measured mainly by one’s level of personal resentment, and revenge rather than reconstruction the apparent aim.
All that is left of the Frankfurt School and its complicated intellectual project is the vaguest idea of Critical Theory as the righter of wrongs. How much time is left over once you have completed all your oppression rituals, your Maoist-style self-denunciation sessions and your panels of virtue-signalling role models, to get to grips with Hegel and Kant or to develop any sense of the development of history? The Disneyfication of Marxism is complete.