Social Justice Usage
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classrooms,” Hypatia 32(4), 2017, 876–892, p. 881.
Critical pedagogy begins from a different set of assumptions rooted in the neo-Marxian literature on critical theory commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation. Critical pedagogy regards the claims that students make in response to social-justice issues not as propositions to be assessed for their truth value, but as expressions of power that function to re-inscribe and perpetuate social inequalities. Its mission is to teach students ways of identifying and mapping how power shapes our understandings of the world. This is the first step toward resisting and transforming social injustices. By interrogating the politics of knowledge-production, this tradition also calls into question the uses of the accepted critical-thinking toolkit to determine epistemic adequacy.
New Discourses Commentary
“Neo-Marxism” is a twentieth century school of thought that sought to simultaneously critique (classical) Marxism while retaining many of its essential features in a new way (see also, aufheben), for example retaining the broadly socialist and communist project at its heart while approaching the issue culturally rather than economically and materially (see also, Cultural Marxism and liberationism). It is associated with the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany (Frankfurt School), which developed it, and is roughly the philosophy advanced by the formal doctrine of Critical Theory, which it produced and applied. In that it both critiques Marxism while pursuing many of its aims (radicalism and sociocultural revolution) with similar methods (e.g., critique and conflict theory), it is a Marxian theory that is not specifically Marxist (and which partially obscures its underlying Marxian organization when convenient by highlighting its criticisms of classical Marxism). Some of its more prominent and influential thinkers included the Hungarian communist György Lukàcs, the Albanian-Italian communist Antonio Gramsci (see also, Gramscian), the German Critical Theorists Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse (see also, tolerance), and arguably black feminists like Angela Davis (see also, abolitionism and black lives matter).
Neo-Marxism is characterized by a few traits that render it identifiably Marxian while divergent from classical Marxism. Perhaps chief among these distinctions is the rejection of the historicism in Marx’s dialectical materialism, which appeared to have been falsified by the early 1920s, and the shift away from Marx’s strict reliance upon material determinism by including also the analysis of cultural factors, and in particular the Gramscian idea of the role played by cultural hegemony (roughly: soft, systemic power). This has led neo-Marxism to be (rightly) identified as “Cultural Marxism,” which is to say the conflict-theory oriented approach central to Marxian analysis applied at the level of cultural institutions rather than to the means of economic production. Though neo-Marxism retains its focus on the capitalist bourgeoisie, it shifts its attention to matters of cultural production like the maintenance of bourgeois values through pop culture and consumerism (thus the general dulling of the population) rather than on the capacity of the producing class to enforce its will upon society and the oppressed proletariat (usually referred to as the middle and working classes in neo-Marxism) through economic oppression alone.
The neo-Marxist school arose by having to contend with the first wave of the catastrophic failures of Marxism, namely the failure of Marx’s prediction that advanced industrial capitalist societies would naturally give way to workers’ class consciousness, subsequent proletarian revolutions, and thus socialist states on their way to communism. Rather than seeing leading industrial centers like London, Paris, Berlin, New York, and Chicago spontaneously undergoing these revolutions, however, only the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) in peasant-heavy Russia had succeeded. Lukàcs’s own communist revolution in Hungary soon after, which took briefly, fell apart within months. This left the communists of the 1920s with a puzzle to solve about what Marx got right and what he got wrong, and, to oversimplify somewhat, the conclusion they drew was that Western capitalist societies produce and inscribe cultural power (hegemony) that resists these revolutions, maintaining bourgeois power by effectively preventing the necessary class consciousness from arising in the working class and turning them into a revolutionary proletariat.
This idea was largely due to the thought of Lukàcs and Gramsci, somewhat together with Max Horkheimer, who went on to direct the Frankfurt School by the mid 1920s. In that Institute for Social Research, the Critical Theorists would come into being by trying to adapt Marx’s “critical philosophy” under the growing developments in the early social sciences, especially Freudian psychoanalysis and Weberian sociology. These were meant to refine and improve Marx’s Wissenschaftlicher Sozialismus, i.e., “scientific socialism.” Indeed, it has been said that theirs was the project of “marrying Marx and Freud,” which obtains its apogee in Herbert Marcuse’s 1955 book Eros and Civilization, in which he essentially argues that Western societies oppress people by getting them to suppress and subvert their own id (especially their libidos) into productive work, which is then exploited by the producing classes of society and therefore could be liberated. This led them to develop a key concept of neo-Marxist thought, namely false consciousness, which could be contrasted against a “critical consciousness” that results from applying critical philosophy to the facts of one’s life and thus generating awareness of one’s subordination and oppression by the consumerist capitalist societies characterizing the rapidly developing West.
This doctrine of false consciousness (which Marx and Friedrich Engels mentioned but did not develop or significantly employ) enabled the neo-Marxists to relocate the source of the maintenance of the oppressive capitalist society inside the heads of everyday people who, not realizing better, would “vote (and buy and work) against their own interests” (because they do not have the necessary critical consciousness to know what their interests are or that they have been supplanted by bourgeois and capitalist-consumerist interests from heteronomous sources). This doctrine is, in an important sense, the underlying assumption of all of neo-Marxism and therefore the purpose of Critical Theory: to awaken the unwashed masses to their real interests, which just so happen to coincide perfectly with those communist philosophers and activists who had taken up neo-Marxism.
In some sense, the essence of neo-Marxist philosophy, then, is that advanced capitalist societies, as they become increasingly consumerist, by means of tools such as advertising, propaganda, mixed economies, and popular culture, hide the true nature of the oppression of the working (and increasingly middle) class from itself. It does this so that the working and middle classes remain ignorant of their own subordination and, generally, happy and content with lives that they might otherwise be miserable about, if only they understood them correctly (as the neo-Marxists understand it, that is). This contentedness is a problem for neo-Marxists because it undermines revolutionary will and tends to maintain the existing society in a relatively stable, mostly profitable way.
The neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse (second generation of the Frankfurt School), for example, referred to these capitalist manipulations as the various “heteronomous interests” (multiple, outside interests, e.g., those of advertisers, employers, the country club, etc.) that prevent everyday people from being able to think for themselves at all and thus realizing the full extent of their “servitude.” That satisfied state of life, he believed, went on to maintain a state of interlocking systemic oppressions from which they could be liberated if only they might realize that they’re not actually as content or happy as they are misled to believe themselves to be. False consciousness has evolved under neo-Marxist (and Woke) thought into doctrines of internalized oppression (e.g., internalized racism) and internalized dominance (e.g., meritocracy), which have a distinctly Freudian flavor and argue that people who are oppressed or who benefit from systemic power, respectively, rationalize this state of affairs as just, reasonable, and natural and therefore accept it, either against or in their own interests (usually outside of their own awareness).
Thus, characteristic of neo-Marxism is a tendency to think in terms of “the system” or systems, which represents virtually all of the aspects of the operation of a functioning (capitalist) society. This shift is consistent with the sociological dimension of its shift away from classical Marxism, which is to say away from the way that the capitalist producing class directly oppresses society and into the ways in which they arrange society to keep people oppressed (and contentedly participating in the system they ultimately control). That is, where classical Marxism would insist that the bourgeoisie produces specific material conditions that keep the working class subordinate and under their control, the neo-Marxist analysis would say that the bourgeois class establishes and maintains the values, norms, and images that accomplish the same thing in less direct ways (though often using direct means such as propaganda and advertising).
This control was believed to be produced and achieved in a variety of ways, depending on the specific neo-Marxist thinker, but generally, they would tend toward an analysis that believes the institutions of cultural production, which are in the control of the bourgeois class of society, are most relevant to the task (Gramsci explicitly named religion, family, education, media, and law as the primary institutions that uphold cultural hegemony, while the Frankfurt School thinkers were additionally very concerned with art and popular culture). The general strategy advocated throughout neo-Marxism is one that combines disruption, dismantling, and especially subversion (rather than seizing), often by infiltrating an institution and taking over its cultural hegemony from within by establishing a growing counter-hegemony that will eventually supplant the original (see also, long march through the institutions).
For many of the neo-Marxist thinkers, especially those affiliated with the Frankfurt School, then, a study of aesthetics gained renewed interest (this not being a particularly important concept in classical Marxism). Therefore, a focus on aesthetics and their role in producing—or subverting—a culture is a central theme in many of the works of neo-Marxist thinkers, especially notably Herbert Marcuse and, even more, Theodor Adorno. Popular culture, propaganda, advertising, and “anti-art” were said to be replacing (high) culture and genuine art, and this was keeping (working) people in a state of low awareness, unconsciousness (false consciousness), and yet an “unhappy” contentedness that hides from them the true nature of their oppression by an elite class who retains these elements of the good life exclusively for itself while also becoming unmoored from the kinds of values that should accompany such nobility. Bitterness and resentment at the state of Weimar Germany (that is, decadent largess), in which many of the neo-Marxists spent their formative years, and the catastrophes that followed are definitely felt in these criticisms, perhaps most especially Theodor Adorno’s stinging critiques of jazz.
The historical relevance of the Weimar Republic on the thinking of many of the neo-Marxists brings to bear another historical fact that profoundly influenced the development of neo-Marxism, namely the World Wars. Most of the neo-Marxist thinkers grew up during World War I, lived through the Weimar Republic, and then saw it collapse as the National Socialist Party (Nazis) inevitably seized power and initiated World War II. Being that most of the neo-Marxists, and nearly all of the Frankfurt School members were, in addition to being neo-Marxist communists, Jews, they would have been acutely aware of the rise and horror of the second world war, not least because it displaced them from Frankfurt and, via Geneva, into the United States. Of primary relevance to the development and expression of neo-Marxist thought, then, are the rise of fascism and role that allegedly “Enlightened” science and technology played in the horrific brutality of those two large-scale modern wars. The unbelievable horrors of Communism under Lenin and Stalin (see also, Leninism and Stalinism) and the roles propaganda and technology played in perpetrating these catastrophes of “bureaucratic socialism” also did not escape their minds (thus further moving them away from “vulgar Marxism” and also the “stagism” of Lenin). This led neo-Marxist thinkers to position themselves (at least to themselves) as the genuine front of antifascist thought.
In that the neo-Marxists retained from Marx his line of dialectical thought, they analyzed these developments through that lens, and in 1944 (updated in 1947), the most comprehensive summary of the neo-Marxist mindset was published by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno under the title The Dialectic of Enlightenment (or, of Reason). Speaking broadly, the thesis of that work, and thus an essential core of neo-Marxist thought, is that reason itself progresses dialectically (i.e., by encountering its own contradictions and shortcomings and then trying to resolve them synthetically) into unreason, including fascism, brutality, and a new kind of scientistic superstition (or myth, which it claims to deny at a fundamental level). This work, thus neo-Marxism, must be understood as a profound rejection of liberalism and Enlightenment rationalism.
This work represented a culmination of a growing vein of critique in neo-Marxism against the philosophical position of positivism (and objectivity, by extension), the philosophical annihilation of which one might reasonably conclude is the genuine underlying project of neo-Marxism itself. In short, the dialectic of Enlightenment ends in one form of fascism or another, and thus the worst forms of brutality human beings have ever visited on one another, with the potential for global catastrophe (in the nuclear-armed Cold War) rapidly increasing to an existential degree. Positivism, which rejected aesthetics and (specifically Jewish) mysticism entirely (as well as aufheben-based dialectical thought, not incidentally), was viewed by the neo-Marxists as a chief philosophical villain in this tragic and horrifying tale.
One reason neo-Marxists rejected positivism that cannot be overlooked, as just indicated, is that it left no room for the dialectical program at the heart of their entire line of thought (or, religion, if we believe Antonio Gramsci’s remark, “socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity”). Indeed, while the neo-Marxists diverged from Marx and have been said to have sought to wed Marx to Freud, one of their primary projects was also to peel back the Kapital-oriented later analyses of Marx and return them nearer to his Manifesto (and earlier) Hegelian roots. In that regard, neo-Marxism might more accurately be identified as a strain of neo-Hegelianism with Marxist characteristics (to borrow phrasing from Mao Zedong, whom the neo-Marxists generally supported, once he arrived on the scene as a significant player in China). Specifically, the development of Cultural Marxism (which is effectively synonymous with neo-Marxism at the operational level), could be seen as a partial return to Hegel’s original purpose with the dialectic, which was to examine ideas (philosophy, Reason), not material conditions, by locating those in a semi-material way in the culture (read: Geist) of a given society. (Someone who understands Hegelian thought might therefore recognize neo-Marxism as a dialectical synthesis of Hegel’s idealist and Marx’s materialist approaches to the dialectic itself, which can be found reflected throughout the neo-Marxist literature ever since.)
As for its relevance to the Theory of Critical Social Justice, it would be largely accurate to say that neo-Marxism (thus Critical Theory and “Cultural Marxism”) are something like the underlying operating system for Critical Social Justice, or at least some of its Theories, especially critical race Theory (and perhaps less queer Theory). What is (on this platform) named Critical Social Justice is, effectively, neo-Marxism that has taken up various aspects of postmodernism and poststructuralism in ways useful to its activism (praxis), especially with regard to the nature of knowledge and beliefs about how power operates in society (what Jordan Peterson identified as “postmodern neo-Marxism” and what the author together with Helen Pluckrose identified as “applied postmodernism”). (An astute reader who understands Hegelian thought might therefore recognize Critical Social Justice as a dialectical synthesis of Critical Theory and the post-Marxist, or post-Hegelian, social constructivism of postmodernism, with that synthesis going formally by the name critical constructivism.)
Abolitionism; Antifascism; Aufheben; Black feminism; Black lives matter; Class consciousness; Communism; Conflict theory; Counter-hegemony; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical constructivism; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Cultural Marxism; Dialectic; Dialectical materialism; Dismantle; Disrupt; Domination; Enlightenment; False consciousness; Fascism; Frankfurt School; Gramscian; Hegelian; Hegemony; Historicism; History; Identity; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Internalized racism; Knowledge(s); Leninism; Liberalism; Liberationism; Long march through the institutions; Marxian; Marxism; Meritocracy; Norm; Objectivity; Oppression; Positivism; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Power (systemic); Praxis; Queer Theory; Radical; Revolution; Science; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialism; Subordination; Subversion; System, the; Theory; Tolerance; West, the; Western; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 50.
Our analysis of social justice is based on a school of thought known as Critical Theory. Critical Theory refers to a body of scholarship that examines how society works, and is a tradition that emerged in the early part of the 20th century from a group of scholars at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany (because of this, this body of scholarship is sometimes also called “the Frankfurt School”). These theorists offered an examination and critique of society and engaged with questions about social change. Their work was guided by the belief that society should work toward the ideals of equality and social betterment.
Many influential scholars worked at the Institute, and many other influential scholars came later but worked in the Frankfurt School tradition. You may recognize the names of some of these scholars, such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. Their scholarship is important because it is part of a body of knowledge that builds on other social scientists’ work: Emile Durkheim’s research questioning the infallibility of the scientific method, Karl Marx’s analyses of capitalism and social stratification, and Max Weber’s analyses of capitalism and ideology. All of these strands of thought built on one another.
Source: Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, first edition. New York University Press, 2001, p. 4.
As the reader will see, critical race theory builds on the insights of two previous movements, critical legal studies and radical feminism, to both of which it owes a large debt. It also draws from certain European philosophers and theorists, such as Antonio Gramsci and Jacques Derrida, as well as from the American radical tradition exemplified by such figures as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Power and Chicano movements of the sixties and early seventies.
Revision date: 5/31/21