I was recently asked by someone reading my forthcoming book with Helen Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, if I would explain the relationship between Marxism and the Critical Social Justice ideology we trace a partial history of in that book. The reason for the question is that Cynical Theories obviously focuses upon the postmodern elements of Critical Social Justice scholarship and activism, and yet many people, particularly among conservatives, identify obvious relationships to Marxism within that scholarship and activism that seems poorly accounted for by talking about postmodernism. This confusion makes sense because postmodernism was always explicitly critical of Marxism, naming it among the grand, sweeping universalizing explanations of reality that it called “metanarratives,” of which it advised us to be radically skeptical.
The goal of Cynical Theories is to add clarity to this admittedly complicated discussion and lay out how postmodernism is of central importance to the development of what we now call “Critical Social Justice” or “Woke” scholarship and ideology. This is actually only one part in a far broader history that certainly draws upon Marx (and thus all the German idealists he drew upon), though in a very peculiar way and through a number of fascinating and, themselves, complex historical and philosophical twists.
One of these is the development of postmodernism, upon which we write, and another is the development of “neo-Marxism,” which is sometimes referred to as “Cultural Marxism.” This is a development of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, and it too was explicitly highly critical of Marxism in its economic particulars, though it retained the underlying ethos and ambition of overthrowing the ruling classes and establishing some variation on communism. Clearly, a third line of thought that bears some relevance is the long and, again, complex history of “social justice” thought, which can be approached in any number of ways, including religious, liberal, communist, and, as we explain in the book, “Woke,” which must be understood to be its own thing in its own context, whatever its intellectual history.
Because we had to pick a narrow enough focus to fit the book into fewer than 100,000 words, we did not do much development into the Critical Theory side of Critical Social Justice, though it is hopefully obvious that that is where the “critical” part of the terminology comes from. Postmodernism used criticism, or critique, in this fashion, but it also used other tools, including what Michel Foucault called “archeology” and “genealogy,” though these were obviously heavily tainted by the “critical” mindset and mood. Nevertheless and obviously, the title of Cynical Theories plays off the fact that Critical Theory is somehow key to it—and the cover art makes this explicit—and the argument we make, though in a rather different fashion, is that Critical Theory and postmodernism fused in the late 1980s and early 1990s into what we named “applied postmodernism.”
Whether one sees this fusion as Critical Theorists in the “liberationist” tradition taking up postmodernist tools to deconstruct oppressive power or as postmodernists taking up the Critical Theory worldview as a point of solidity in an otherwise completely liquid formulation of society and everything in it is, perhaps, a matter of perspective and debate (Helen and I differ somewhat on this point, for example). It may be of importance, but for the present discussion it is not. What matters is that this particular fusion, applied to the specific question of increasing social justice, is what became the “Critical Social Justice” scholarship and activism that we dedicate the book to exposing, explaining, and providing a clear alternative to. (You’ll have to pardon me that I’m using my updated terminology for it here, “Critical Social Justice,” whereas we only called it “Social Justice scholarship” when we wrote the book.)
People who observe that Marxism is somehow tied into all of this Woke stuff, then, are certainly not wrong, but it just as certainly isn’t Marxism. Marxists, like the real thing, might be behind this whole “Social Justice” phenomenon, or ready to come in after it tears society apart, as it does, but the Woke themselves are not Marxists, proper, and neither are the Marxists Woke. The simplest way to put this would be the following:
- Critical Theory is “neo-Marxism,” or, as it’s sometimes phrased, “Cultural Marxism,” which plainly derives from Marxism and retained much of what was core to its thought while completely modifying other aspects of it in the hopes of achieving communism.
- Postmodernism is a particular form of “post-Marxism,” which had given up more or less entirely on Marxism and thus everything else, though it was still a fairly significant fan of communist efforts as they played out in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was no friend to liberalism.
- Critical Social Justice is the intentional fusion of these two schools of thought with the goal of achieving its ideas about “Social Justice” through radical identity politics.
None of this is simple, though, unfortunately, and so it all requires more elaboration. A quick history might therefore be in order. The relevant object to understand, though we don’t develop this specifically in Cynical Theories, is Marx’s “conflict theory,” which he derived from Hegel’s master/slave dialectic.
Conflict theory applied to industrial capitalist economics is Marxism proper. That didn’t work, and people noticed. The neo-Marxists arose to try to explain why it didn’t work while retaining hope for the revolution. The post-Marxist postmodernists arose somewhat later to explain why everything is hopeless and so the only conclusion we can possibly reach is that nothing means anything and we’re all living a lie that should be taken apart on every conceivable level.
As for the neo-Marxists, they understood that Marx was wrong to say that economics were the relevant object upstream of politics. They realized it is culture and thus the impacts culture has on individual psychologies that is upstream of politics. (Andrew Breitbart didn’t come up with this idea; he read it from the Critical Theorists before deciding that they were right and putting it into his own applications!) Critical Theory, then, arose as an application of conflict theory to ideology and culture, as analyzed partly through (psychoanalytic) psychology and the emerging field of sociology. They blamed Marxism for failing to understand people and society just as much as they blamed liberalism for producing a means by which people could see society as essentially fair and success as essentially the result of talent and effort.
So, neo-Marxism is Marxian but not Marxist, in that it continues the conflict theory-style analysis of Marx into a different realm and does so toward essentially Marxist ends. One could say this is a distinction without a difference, but that is incorrect. The consequence of this shift is profound. It means that rather than attempting to unite workers and seize the means of economic production, as the Marxists had envisioned, the neo-Marxists wanted to change culture itself. This led them to find multiple sites of the oppressor/oppressed dynamic in society and get inside peoples heads with it, which they derived from the intentional forced marriage of Freudian psychoanalysis into Marxian social theory. They led them to understood the importance of seizing the means of cultural production—education, media, arts, journalism, faith, and entertainment—though, in many respects, they weren’t particularly good at it. For that, they would need the postmodernists and the critical pedagogists, as we shall see.
Of course, this is an oversimplification rather in the extreme. The neo-Marxists were critical of Marxism but not all that far from it, and they explicitly sought to agitate for a genuine Marxist revolution by means of agitating for it culturally instead of economically. That is, their goal was to use culture and ideology as a proxy by which they could effect the revolutions of the various underclasses. These they hoped to unite under a banner philosophy of “liberationism,” where by “liberation” was still very much meant liberation from the abuses of a capitalist post-Enlightenment society. Thus, the neo-Marxists merely moved the site of analysis a step back from economics to underlying culture, specifically targeting elite culture as bourgeois and middle or popular culture as a commodity produced by the elites to keep the masses dumb and content, thus not revolutionary. Their underlying assumption is that the elites define what constitutes the ostensibly “authentic” culture in a way that brainwashes the masses into working, voting, buying, and living against their own best interests, and the masses need their consciousnesses raised and made critical so they’d start hating their lives, as the Critical Theorists believed was right and proper for them, and then revolt.
In Cynical Theories, we focus on postmodernism, however, and only touch lightly upon the neo-Marxist line of thought. Postmodernism is, in some sense, a very cynical and pessimistic offshoot of Marxian and even neo-Marxist thought that took up very deeply with French structuralism, which saw the construction of society through the way language is organized in complicated webs of meaning called “discourses.” The postmodernists read a lot of power into discourses, as they would coming from a broadly structuralist mindset, and their Theory is roughly the idea that the real source of Marx’s “superstructures” of society are constructed in language, discourses, and claims to knowledge. For them, knowledge is all socially constructed, and therefore truth claims—whether true or not—are all mere applications of the politics of those who happen to hold power at that particular time and place in human history.
In that sense, postmodernism could almost be thought of as conflict theory applied to knowledge generation and discourse validation, but the original postmodernists were too pessimistic and thus nihilistic for “conflict” to really fully fit as a description of their project. They couldn’t really do conflict theory—seeing society as stratified into powerful groups who held those they oppressed down in a zero-sum conflict for opportunities and resources—because that would have required hope that there was anything of value in the “sum” at all. Because the postmodernists had given up on more or less everything, rather than seeking to analyze power structures and flip them in revolution, they opted to dissolve them entirely. This is a significant shift in thought, and, as can be seen, it isn’t quite strictly “critical” and yet retains that critical spirit.
The nihilism of postmodernism follows its conclusion that power works through everyone all the time because we—most importantly by means of how we make meaning and share it through language, thus discourses—are all agents of power, which is everywhere and fully permeates society. Thus, the postmodernists didn’t so much hold out any hope of a revolution that overturned oppressive power and, instead, sought to tear down every edifice of society to the level of personal lived experience, which was the only not-mediated thing they could imagine. (Therefore, existentialism, another French invention, is felt here rather profoundly.) This postmodern pessimism was more or less universal, though, and extended to Marxism as well as to capitalism, liberalism, and everything else, all of which Jean-François Lyotard named as “metanarratives” to be radically skeptical of. It is in this sense that postmodernism is actually more post-Marxist than it is anything else.
So, that sets the history of both the neo-Marxist and postmodernist (post-Marxist) schools of thought and explains their connection to Marxism, including what they kept from Marx and what they rejected. The Marxian roots are obvious, and yet it isn’t Marxism, and this antagonistic relationship between the theoretical approaches goes in both directions.
One of the main points of criticism of both neo-Marxism and post-Marxism, i.e., Critical Theory and postmodernism, is Marxism itself. Both saw that Marxism had failed in certain ways and for certain reasons, and both were content to very viciously attack Marxism as a failed theory whose broader ambitions either could (neo-Marxism) possibly be realized by agitating culture enough, or could not (post-Marxism) ever be realized (and thus advocated giving up on essentially everything except lived experience and cynical, pessimistic play, especially with words and symbols). Of course, to be completely fair, the post-Marxists weren’t quite so thoroughly pessimistic as their theoretical approach, though, in practice. Whatever their Theories said, they still, at least for a time, drew heavily off the successes of Mao in his Cultural Revolution and used them to inspire Pol-Pot, who studied alongside them at the Sorbonne in Paris at the time, to go after a deconstructive Year-Zero campaign of his own.
Nevertheless, both of these traditions had major problems, as one would expect from even hearing a superficial description of their ideas, and both of them more or less burned themselves out in public popularity pretty quickly. The French postmodern Theory was rejected completely in France and more or less ignored everywhere else outside of English departments in North America and Australia, it seems. It became something of a philosophical backwater that had mostly been taken up as a kind of plaything by feminists and sophists until it became more or less synonymous with “intellectual impostures” and was wrongly declared dead by the academy as a serious intellectual pursuit by sometime in the 1990s.
Neo-Marxism, on the other hand, turned radical and violent under Herbert Marcuse, who even claimed himself that it had gone beyond his vision, and it burned itself out in terms of public support. (His influence, combined with that of the French postcolonialist and psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon, is, to decent approximation on its own the origin story of the radical anarchist project called Antifa.) Critical Theory then went underground into the universities, in that whole long march through the institutions project, starting in the early 1970s, working its way first into feminist and then other forms of critique, mostly in English departments, under headings like women’s studies, gender studies, African American studies, and ethnic studies.
Thus, again, it’s our avant-garde humanities scholars who remained interested in this at the time, mostly feminists who were radical in spirit but not technically “radical” as the term is meant (ones who were deep in socialist and materialist analyses of the patriarchy, for the most part, but not the angry lesbian separatist stuff) and black liberationists (nb: “liberationism” means neo-Marxism, by definition). These went on to establish and grow those various “studies” departments and thus started the long process of idea-laundering identity-based Critical Theories within our academic presses, universities, and their classrooms. More or less everyone else ignored it even as they believed themselves more and more crucially relevant within the academy, with one horrible exception, to our peril, until quite recently.
The one notable exception is the schools of education, particularly following the “critical turn in education,” which sought to make education about “consciousness raising” and instilling a “critical consciousness” into children as an educational priority. Some of this was explicitly anti-capitalist, and thus Marxist in origin, but it was mostly much more subtle. Critical pedagogy, as the result came to be called, was much more interested in undermining the national metanarratives, if you will, and getting students to be “educated” in a way that would lead them to be critical of their own national histories, culture, and civics—or, more explicitly, to get them to learn to see their home nations as oppressive bad actors rather than as imperfect leaders of spreading a liberal order throughout the world and thus come to doubt or even hate them.
This turn, which also sought to “empower” students in their relationships with teachers in the classroom and beyond, was initiated by the radical activist Henry Giroux mainlining his own takes on the Brazilian education “reformer” Paulo Freire into our educational programs around 1980. Giroux, at the time, was a leftist radical activist in education, but seemingly of a fairly nondescript sort, at least until he discovered Freire’s book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which he described as sparking a revolution in his thinking.
For his part, Freire is usually described as post-Marxist, but he was in some ways a different sort, drawing heavily off the South American Marxist and neo-Marxist traditions that had kind of hybridized in that particular cultural context. Though the details remain unclear to me at this time, this mishmash of leftist ideologies predicated on Marxism in South America probably resulted from leftists in the region having taken up liberation theology first and then inserting it into everything else in society from there. Surely, Marxists and neo-Marxists who fled various European countries for South America, particularly during World War II would also have deepened this particular Marxian/Marxist line of thought, within which Freire incubated his own ideas.
Freire, I’m told, ruined Brazilian education more or less singlehandedly, and it was his approach that Henry Giroux found so inspiring that he dragged it and its influence into North America. Giroux then incorporated first neo-Marxist and then postmodernist ideas (“the European theorists”) into education and educational theory, though the latter of those projects happened much more extensively later under the hand of another critical pedagogist named Joe Kincheloe. Thus, our schools of education turned heavily in the “critical” direction (meaning a blurry mix of Marxism, neo-Marxism, and postmodern post-Marxism, plus Freire’s own slightly tangential post-Marxist ideas) by the early 1980s, when Giroux became massively influential after publishing his first book, Ideology, Culture, and the Process of Schooling, which was first published in North America in 1981.
A lot was going on in the 1980s and into the 1990s in this regard. By then, the (liberationlist, i.e., neo-Marxist) black feminists (this is a school of thought, not black people who happen to be feminists) had taken up quite a bit of interest in postmodern Theory, as had some other fairly radical feminists, especially those like Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, and Eve Sedgwick, who would go on to lay the foundations of queer Theory. You had, for example, scholars like bell hooks who were tied into nearly all of these streams of thought at once gaining tremendous influence, and all three of them can be clearly read in her landmark education book in 1994 titled Teaching to Transgress. hooks’ thought was particularly influential in the development of critical race Theory as well as in bringing black feminist and critical race Theory perspectives into the critical turn in education, and she was explicitly liberationist (neo-Marxist) and very experimental in the relevance of postmodern Theory to her thought, activism, and teaching.
This generation of activists saw postmodern Theory as somewhat incorrect but intrinsically useful for deconstructing the power dynamics their underlying neo-Marxist and radical feminist worldviews believed dominated society. To be clear, I’m glazing over a lot of complicated history and thought in this paragraph, but the ascendancy of a postmodernist critical race Theory and queer Theory from within specific sects of black feminism and gender studies, in particular, is central to the fusion of neo-Marxism and postmodernism that forms one of the key observations and claims of Cynical Theories.
The big idea these particular Theorists had was to limit the deconstructive potential of postmodern Theory so that it couldn’t be applied to any identity factor that’s on the “oppressed” end of the neo-Marxist liberationist view. They outlined the idea that to deconstruct a site of oppression, as it is understood through lived experience, is itself a luxury, thus application, of oppressive privilege. That removed systemic oppression, as the liberationists (neo-Marxists) defined it, from the acid bath of postmodernist deconstruction.
That is, a moral rock—the imperative to liberate from oppression—was inserted into the philosophical universe touched upon by these varied Marxian lines of scholarship, thought, and activism. That reification of systemic oppression, as understood through its lived experience (the one thing the deconstructionists said would be left when everything else is deconstructed), created a neat package by which postmodern Theory could be simplified and packaged up for activists.
At this point, we reach the crucial and yet probably utterly unimportant question: were these activists postmodernists or neo-Marxists, in the main, who incorporated the other line of thought into theirs? My answer to this question is that—because they were activists—they were ultimately neo-Marxists, and their philosophy is one in which those who experience systemic oppression are to be made aware of their oppression and its systemic nature and thus seek a revolution that would liberate them from it. The evolution of Critical Theory had, by the 1960s even, laid out the sites of genuine systemic oppression as being those oversimplified stratifications of society rooted in factors of personal identity. Nonetheless, the continuity of postmodern thought is abundantly clear, and this continuity forms the central thesis of Cynical Theories.
Thus, “liberationist” politics were even by then, and much more by the time in 1989–1991 when postmodernism was fully and formally incorporated into them, unapologetically centered upon a narrowly particular and aggressive approach to identity politics that sought to forward social responsibility at the level of identity groups as the answer to the question of systemic oppression. The postmodern view that knowledge is just another application of unjustly empowered politics effectively liberated neo-Marxism from any obligation to making true statements about the world in service of its liberationist agenda. Instead, it elevated for these rather cutthroat activists the power of both unfalsifiable claims to lived experience (of systemic oppression) and the problematizing (i.e., offense-taking) that the Critical Theorists had forwarded as a means beyond defeasibility and falsification for invalidating undesirable (note: not “incorrect”) statements about the world and social reality within it (these, of course, would be those that are “not liberationist,” in the sense of producing a communist, or ethno-communist, revolution).
Hopefully obviously, this approach could not possibly be like that defining the liberal core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (in the United States), or of Gay Pride (which sought to normalize LGB and later T identities, which has always been vigorously opposed by queer Theory), or of liberal approaches to feminism in the second wave. Rather than appealing to individualism and universal humanity, this “applied postmodern” approach took a tack closer to that of the Black Power movement, which ran in a less-liberal parallel to the Civil Rights Movement.
This very radical approach as it appeared in the 1990s makes the Black Power movement from the 1960s and 1970s look quaint by comparison. It ultimately carried the goal of earning liberation for those who endure systemic oppression, not just from their oppressors but from oppression itself by seeking a complete overthrow of the existing system, in part through a complete deconstruction of anything that confers, produces, legitimizes, or upholds systemic power in any regard whatsoever. Whiteness itself, in all of its various manifestations, for example, must be unmade to end systemic racism, it contends. Here, then, is where postmodernism (post-Marxism) and neo-Marxism fused into “Critical Social Justice,” and this fusion can be read quite explicitly in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s landmark 1991 paper, “Mapping the Margins” (pdf).
That was the official birth of the Critical Social Justice school of thought, what we called “applied postmodernism” throughout Cynical Theories (although applied postmodern thinking predated Crenshaw’s 1991 paper by some time, especially in postcolonial Theory, that paper marks a very clear turning point and birthmark for the dominance of that line of thinking). In that sense, Marx’s influence is obvious in Critical Social Justice in the form of conflict theory applied across the stratification of identity groups (theorized as “positionality”) and the postmodern (really, poststructural) techniques of deconstruction were set to be applied only to oppressive power structures, as the Theory defined them.
In all of this, Marxism, though, which is conflict theory applied to Industrial Age capitalist economics, is more or less completely lost, except as a thing that people occasionally yell about without any apparent deep understanding. Class struggle, to Marxists, unites people across identity groups—“workers of the world, unite!”—so identity groups are mostly irrelevant to Marxism except in the effort to outline the specific ways that capitalism might uniquely exploit them. In fact, the proper Marxists of today don’t like Critical Social Justice at all because of its divisiveness around identity within class and its overwhelmingly obvious bourgeois language, position-seeking, elite-status origins, disregard for reality, and seemingly unmatched disdain for the working class.
So, in that sense, the Critical Social Justice that we describe in Cynical Theories (under the moniker “Social Justice scholarship and activism”) is profoundly Marxian in more than one way at once but is very expressly not Marxist. In particular, Marxism is an economics-based social theory, and Critical Social Justice actually usurps economic analysis and obscures it to use it as a proxy for its peculiar approach to identity politics. To be more specific on that, for example, it’s overwhelmingly obvious that economic causes are the sources of many of the phenomena Critical Race Theorists name as “systemic racism,” but they use the fact that there are statistical economic differences by race to claim that racism (not capitalistic exploitation) are the ultimate causes of those differences. Thus, they make class a proxy for the site of oppression that they’re actually obsessively focused upon, race, and thereby obliterate any possibility for liberal, rational, or even materialist or Marxist analysis of the underlying issues.
There’s something of an exception to that point, however, as though this isn’t already complicated enough. As Critical Social Justice not particularly suited to do much of anything except tear things apart and seems positively disinterested in building anything at all, the truly Marxist underpinnings of the movement do tend to show through a bit when its activists try to do anything practical in the sense of building something. We see this, for example, in demands for equitable and diverse hiring, as those ideas are quite obviously related to Marxism but only as filtered through identity-based lenses, which Marxism would reject on principle (not for bad reasons). In this way, it’s probably more accurate to describe the efforts of Critical Social Justice not as Marxist but as ethno-communist, where “ethnicity” here applies to the “culture” of any particular “systemically oppressed” identity group.
I know it’s confusing, but hopefully this helps clarify the complicated relationship between Marxism, neo-Marxism, postmodernism, and their kind of mutant-hybrid descendant, Critical Social Justice scholarship and activism. So it goes when radical Marxian-Utopian activism evolves against both reality and the solid liberal societies that successfully push back at all of its many endless attempts to undermine society from within.
Interested readers can get Cynical Theories here.