Social Justice Usage
Source: Marcuse, Herbert. “An Essay on Liberation.” 1969.
In Vietnam, in Cuba, in China, a revolution is being defended and driven forward which struggles to eschew the bureaucratic administration of socialism. The guerrilla forces in Latin America seem to be animated by that same subversive impulse: liberation. At the same time, the apparently impregnable economic fortress of corporate capitalism shows signs of mounting strain: it seems that even the United States cannot indefinitely deliver its goods – guns and butter, napalm and color TV, The ghetto populations may well become the first mass basis of revolt (though not of revolution). The student opposition is spreading in the old socialist as well as capitalist countries. In France, it has for the first time challenged the full force of the regime and recaptured, for a short moment, the libertarian power of the red and the black flags; moreover, it has demonstrated the prospects for an enlarged basis. The temporary suppression of the rebellion will not reverse the trend.
None of these forces is the alternative. However, they outline, in very different dimensions, the limits of the established societies, of their power of containment. When these limits are reached, the Establishment may initiate a new order of totalitarian suppression. But beyond these limits, there is also the space, both physical and mental, for building a realm of freedom which is not that of the present: liberation also from the liberties of exploitative order – a liberation which must precede the construction of a free society, one which necessitates an historical break with the past and the present.
It would be irresponsible to overrate the present chances of these forces (this essay will stress the obstacles and “delays”), but the facts are there, facts which are not only the symbols but also the embodiments of hope. They confront the critical theory of society with the task of reexamining the prospects for the emergence of a socialist society qualitatively different from existing societies, the task of redefining socialism and its preconditions.
New Discourses Commentary
Liberation is the name for the objective of Critical Social Justice and, in fact, much of Critical Theory since at least the 1960s. Liberationism could be understood as the ideology that seeks “liberation” from all systems of oppression, so it is in some sense the underlying ethical engine for the Theory of Critical Social Justice in specific and most of post-War Critical Theory more broadly.
“Liberation” refers to liberation from systemic oppression in all of its forms (see also, emancipation and abolitionism). (NB: This means, in practice, that it seeks “liberation” from inequalities of outcome.) Though it is not necessarily obvious from this basic description or even a superficial reading of the literature, “liberation” means, more accurately, liberation from the liberal order, including Enlightenment rationalism and capitalism (see also, neo-Marxism). As can be clearly read above, the goal of liberationism was to free society from capitalism and initiate “a socialist society qualitatively different from existing societies,” even requiring “redefining socialism and its preconditions” (see also, equity). In Critical Theorist Herbert Marcuse’s telling, liberationism refers to liberation both from liberal capitalist systems and their democratic/republican social orders and from “bureaucratic” approaches to socialism that make room for a “liberated” socialism without the bureaucracy. In that sense, a liberated society is an idealized socialist or communist state that isn’t bureaucratic. Marcuse indicates that no society of this sort exists or ever has existed and also, in this 1969 “Essay on Liberation,” that man might have to be fundamentally remade at the “biological level” to be suitable to a truly liberated society (see also, New Soviet Man and New Left).
Liberationism seems to have arisen from a fusion of anarcho-communism, postcolonialism and neo-Marxism, particularly drawing inspiration from the early postcolonialist Frantz Fanon (a French-Algerian psychoanalyst) who wrote the very famous books Black Skins, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. These works were very influential on a wide variety of radical thinkers, ranging from Critical Theorists to later postcolonial thinkers who would take up postmodernism (and thus go on to establish postcolonial Theory as a partial precursor to Critical Social Justice—see also, applied postmodernism). It was particularly influential in the Latin and South American contexts, along with in former French colonies like Algeria and Vietnam. Fanon called for liberation from colonialism, including by means of violence. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, he was attacked by radical feminists and black feminists (notably bell hooks) for failing to take into account women’s liberation as a specific cause.
In Latin and South America, liberation movements, often called “liberation fronts,” dominated this move. Meanwhile, an ideology of liberationism developed around those movements largely through a religious avenue in which left-wing (and generally Marxist) Catholics developed liberation theology, and generations of left-wing radicals took up with a liberation movement that would free them from the pains and problems of colonial rule and disruption. Indeed, they understood “liberation” from “imperial rule” in both the Marxian sense of imperialism and the Fanonian sense, which advocated for militancy and open (and violent) rebellion to restore a sense of self-worth to the (formerly) colonized.
These liberation movements, like the National Liberation Front (in Vietnam, better known as the Viet Cong) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) (primarily in Columbia), ended up serving as a militant inspiration for left-wing radicals throughout Europe and North America, who found their tactics generally inspiring and motivations just. Through the 1960s, two movements inspired by that ethos but by-design motivated by identity politics, the women’s liberation movement, as a kind of militantly radical feminism (see also, Marxist feminism), and a black liberation movement, often more recognizable under labels like Black Power or Black Nationalism, arose and eventually convened with liberationist leaders from these much more explicitly militant organizations (particularly the Latin and South American leaders). A similar movement known as “gay liberation” also arose at the time and served as a precursor to the queer movement, which has largely splintered off from (generally liberal) LGBT movements, with whom they are often at powerful odds. These movements grew through the 1970s. Meanwhile, under the leadership of James Cone, a black liberation theology emerged from a fusion of liberation theology, black liberationism, and, perhaps, the older Baptist Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch.
Today, “liberation” is often listed as one of the explicit goals of Critical Social Justice and the movements that operate at least partly under its worldview, including Black Lives Matter and the broader prison abolition movement and, partially, Antifa. These movements have the goal of creating liberation from the various dynamics of domination and systemic oppression they Theorize as characterizing the true nature of society, including systemic racism, patriarchy, systemic sexism, misogyny, homophobia and heteronormativity, transphobia and cisnormativity, ableism and ablenormativity, fatphobia and thinormativity, and “fascism.” These generally actually refer to the liberal order, theories of equality, and capitalism.
While Black Lives Matter derives quite explicitly from a “queer black feminist” variation of black liberationism (see also, intersectionality and critical race Theory), Antifa represents a slightly different case. Antifa is, in fact, an older movement that is not necessarily directly concerned with “liberation” but would find common cause with them (NB: See Marcuse’s mention of the “red and black flags” in the excerpt quoted above). That movement—and related decentralized activist syndicate—is nominally “anti-fascist,” though it was derived in spirit and approach from Critical Theorist Herbert Marcuse’s reappropriation of certain among Nazi brownshirt techniques, though ostensibly to opposite ends. Antifa as it exists today, though the movement itself predates these turns, essentially arises from a small number of related projects. One is Antifaschistische Aktion, its original origin point, which was ultimately an anarcho-communist project utilized by the Communist Party to brand itself as the true anti-fascists (such that any who opposed communism could therefore be branded “pro-fascism”). This project took the direction of the Critical Theorizing that Marcuse condensed and articulated through the 1960s, especially in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance” (see also, tolerance) and his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man. It combined these ideas with Frantz Fanon’s militant and radical calls against imperialism and for “liberation.” It is in these senses that Antifa concerns itself with the business of “liberation” from what it describes quite erroneously as “fascism,” i.e., free, capitalist society and a functioning liberal order, with which the other forms of “systemic oppression” are Theorized to be intrinsically implicated.
To summarize, however, Theory in general holds that the various systemic power dynamics—which are all interlinked (see also, intersectionality) as irreducible parts (what Hegel called Moments) of a single problem (systemic oppression) with a single source (the system, i.e., liberal capitalism)—create oppression and domination, and the oppressed deserve and need to be liberated from those systems (see also, radical egalitarianism). Theory maintains that the systems themselves are almost entirely incapable of reform, however, and must be disrupted, dismantled, subverted, and overthrown (see also, aufheben) in sociocultural and political revolution, even down to the level of what constitutes knowledge (see also, epistemic oppression and epistemic violence). That is, “liberation” refers to being emancipated from the prevailing system, which is to say the liberal order, for the more “ideal democracy” imagined by the Critical Theorists. This “ideal democracy” would be what arises when there are absolutely no systemic injustices left in the system, which is to say when communism finally emerges from the revolutionary trajectory History must take once the liberal-capitalist hegemony finally fails (thanks to the “ruthless” critiques of Critical Theory).
Currently, all branches of Critical Social Justice Theory speak explicitly in terms of liberation, in essence acting as though the world has not meaningfully changed since the days of slavery, segregation, (Western) colonialism, patriarchy, and the rest, which were meaningfully brought to a halt in liberal societies by the last part of the twentieth century, and while also insisting that, largely because of freedom of speech, the liberal order is always at imminent risk of tipping into fascism and thus must be understood as a precursor to fascism. In every domain where Critical Social Justice Theory is made relevant or taught, then, so too is liberationism (see also, critical pedagogy). While liberation, on the surface, sounds like a good and worthy goal, then, it must be understood for the extremely radical and explicitly anti-liberal program that it actually is.
Ableism; Ablenormativity; Abolitionism; Antifa; Anti-fascism; Applied postmodernism; Aufheben; Black feminism; Black liberation theology; Black liberationism; Black lives matter; Capitalism; Cisnormativity; Colonialism; Critical; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Democracy; Dismantle; Disrupt; Domination; Emancipation; Enlightenment; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Equality; Equity; Fascism; Fatphobia; Freedom of speech; Hegemony; Heteronormativity; History; Homophobia; Identity politics; Ideology; Imperalism; Intersectionality; Justice; Knowledge(s); Liberal; Liberation theology; Marxism; Marxist feminism; Misogyny; Nazi; Neo-Marxism; New Left; New Soviet Man; Oppression; Patriarchy; Postcolonial Theory; Postcolonialism; Postmodernism; Power (systemic); Queer; Racism (systemic); Radical; Radical egalitarianism; Radical feminism; Revolution; Segregation; Sexism (systemic); Social Justice; Socialism; Subversion; System, the; Theory; Thinormativity; Tolerance; Transphobia; Truth; Violence; Western; Women’s liberation
Revision date: 3/29/21