Critical Theory: The Basics
Posted on February 18, 2020
Critical theory (CT) is getting press today among conservatives chiefly because of its inroads in the Southern Baptist Convention and similar groups. This belated recognition is unfortunate, because had conservatives been culturally attune they would not now be fighting with their backs to the church walls. But because so many have been influenced by ecclesiastical colonization, and take notice of cultural evils only when they threaten the church, they are ill-prepared to confront the depraved intruders. A comprehensive Reformational paradigm for cultural engagement would have largely bypassed this problem, but too many conservatives are culturally passive to engage this paradigm. Better late than never, however.
CT is not hard to understand, but it is hard to begin to understand. It’s like driving a stick shift: once you get the hang of it, you don’t even think of it as you’re driving. It’s getting the hang of it that’s the bother. This post will help you get the hang of CT.
CT is the way of thinking that Cultural Marxists devised to sabotage and replace Western culture. It began with Marxist intellectuals in Frankfurt, Germany between World Wars I and II, in the 20s and 30s. It’s a dangerous, apostate way of thinking. It has largely created the culture we live in. It’s taken for granted by many professors at many universities? What is CT?
Thinking about thinking
First, it’s not just a way of thinking. It’s a way of thinking about thinking. The critical theorists wanted to change not just what we think, but how we think. How do we normally think? I don’t mean just quick thoughts as we navigate our day. I mean when we ruminate: when we ponder, when we think deeply.
If we spend time “thinking through” some topic, we analyze it. We might ask ourselves, “Why did I just lose my best friend?” We might come up with several answers: “I said something offensive.” Or: “He or she was selfish.” Or: “We outgrew one another.” But the critical theorists would say that while these verdicts might be true, they’re superficial. To get a real handle, we must understand the larger context of that loss of friendship. And that context is always social. It’s not just you and your friend. It’s you and your friend and the social forces you live within, the world you were born into, the forces that made and make that world — and you.
You’ve been shaped by the structures of society: your past, your parents, your material possessions (or lack of them), your job, your race, your other relationships, and the wider society itself. It’s only when you take all of these into account that you really understand why things happen as they do. For this reason, the critical theorists say, you can’t just look at the breakup of the friendship and analyze it. The underlying reasons are never self-evident. You must also look at all the social forces at work, and then you can come to understand the real, deep, underlying reason(s) it happened. Point #1 — we must analyze the social forces behind every act and event.
Now we get to the second main feature of CT: dialectics. This means that reality is always in motion, and to understand it, we must understand where it came from, and where it’s going. Reality is always in flux. It’s like watching a movie in a theater and, therefore, without a remote or digital button like you have at home with streaming video: we can’t pause or rewind reality. This means we can’t analyze reality like we could a snapshot photo. The friendship breakup in our metaphor has been coming on for a while. It will also lead to something else for the two former friends. We can’t analyze the breakup apart from what brought it on and what it is leading to. Point #2 — we must see the act or event from its past, present, and future perspectives to really know it.
Progress by conflict
Third: reality is in motion, but the changes to reality come by conflict. In other words, conflict is a part of nature. It’s a law of the universe. Karl Marx, intellectual fountainhead of CT, was influenced by the German idealist Hegel. You might have heard of his idea of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. We start with a thesis, an idea, of the way things are. Let’s extend our metaphor: Belle and Marsha are friends. But then comes a conflicting factor (the antithesis): Jerry is a handsome single guy who likes Belle and takes Belle away from Marsha, destroying the girls’ friendship. Then comes the synthesis: Jerry and Belle get engaged, but Belle asks Marsha to be her maid of honor at her wedding. This then becomes the new thesis: at least three new (kinds of) relationships — Belle and Jerry; Belle and Marsha; and Belle, Marsha and Jerry — come about. Then there will be a new antithesis to conflict with this thesis, and that conflict will create a new synthesis, and so on. This is a simple case of dialectics. But the good news is that this change is always progress. This means that you can never have progress without conflict. So conflict is good.
The Bible, in radical contrast, teaches that Jesus Christ and God’s word and his law are unchanging (Heb. 13:8; 1 Pet. 1:25; Mt. 5:18). Conflict isn’t an inherent part of the universe; there’s only conflict because of sin. But critical theorists thought these categories were static and boring. They were excited by the idea that man and the world aren’t bound by eternal truths. We are always in process toward something else and something better (recall that Darwinism and its view of evolution began in the 19th century). This also meant that morals and ethics aren’t fixed. They’re in flux. This was the cornerstone of Marx’s guiding philosophy: dialectical materialism.
The point of CT is that all of life is dialectical — everything and everyone is in the process of becoming different, even their opposite. So we cannot analyze what something is, as if it were final, only what it was, and what it is, and what it is becoming. Point #3 — Reality is evolving, always in motion, and conflict is creating the change.
Morality is always a power play in flux
Next point: This is just as true of moral standards. They too are in motion. Listen to how Marx and his famed associate Frederick Engels described this in the Communist Manifesto:
[D]on’t wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois [middle class, the traditionalists, the property owners] notions of freedom, culture, law, &c. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence [law, courts] is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class.
Marx is speaking to his intellectual enemies. They were identifying his views with theft, for example: They say, “Marx, you’re program means stealing from the haves to give to the have-nots.” Marx replies that there are no universal standards of morality, so what one claims is theft another may claim as justice. Moral standards are dialectical. They are in flux. Marx believed that economic ideas (all ideas, in fact) arise from people’s material condition, for instance, whether they were rich, poor, or somewhere in between. If they were rich or bourgeois, they would believe that it’s stealing for the state to take all property so they can distribute it fairly to everybody (Robin Hood economics, we might call it). In other words, there is no eternal, fixed definition of stealing. Your economic condition leads you to invent your definition of stealing. Marx was a relativist: morality isn’t fixed, but dependent on your condition or place in history or culture.
There aren’t any absolute moral standards. Adultery and homosexuality are called sins by the Bible, but only because the people who wrote the Bible lived in a society that had a mistaken view of the family. But through conflict with opposing views, we know better today. Then again, we’ll know even better 100 years from now.
In the case of our breakup, for instance, Jerry brought Belle into an oppressive relationship (marriage), but Belle can later use Marsha to help her get a boyfriend with whom she can have sex to get her out of her marriage with Jerry. And this wouldn’t be wrong, because it would squash marriage as an oppressive relationship. Point #4 — Moral standards are dialectical. Through conflict, they change.
The historically inevitable march to human liberation
Fifth: historical and social forces are moving toward throwing off all human oppression. All inequality is oppression. And all human relationships are now based on power and exploitation — men over women, whites and Asians over blacks and Hispanics, heterosexuals over homosexuals, parents over children, employers over employees. It’s all about power. But CT doesn’t spend a lot of time blaming the oppressors: they’re just a product of their class and of historical processes.
The goal of CT is to help accelerate the time when there will be less inequality. Belle and Marsha and Jerry won’t have conflicts because they’ll like each other equally. Jerry won’t take Belle away from Marsha because there won’t be any marriage. Even if there is, it won’t imply they belong exclusively to one another. There will be no reason they cannot all be friends equally, on level ground. Point #5 — the movement of history is toward equality, meaning the end of all oppression. This will be a secular utopia. Presumably, this will be the end of all progress and conflict.
Human imagination can change everything
Sixth, a great impediment to the secular utopia is the prominent belief that we cannot change culture. CT holds that two main ways of seeing culture are by objectification and reflection. Objectification is the problem. We are born into a world that has convinced itself that there are some universal laws or standards or realities that take certain types of social change off the table. For instance, we believe that acquisitiveness — the desire to get or acquire more things for comfort or style — is rooted in what it means to be human. We believe humans are just naturally acquisitive, so we need to arrange a social system like free markets to cater to them.
But this is just objectification. It’s not natural, but just an idea that we believe to be natural, and since this is so, we can work toward a system like socialism that works to change man to make him not acquisitive, that is, that makes it natural not to want private property but to share everything. And if people seem naturally acquisitive, then we can change them. This is why both Marxism and CT work to reengineer human nature. Human nature is not fixed or unchangeable. The very idea of what it means to be human we can change. You can smash the acquisitive quality out of people. In our extended metaphor, since Belle and Marsha believe that adultery is not wrong but only a morality invented by status-monopolizing traditionalists, they have no compunctions about pressing toward the perfect relationship by breaking up Belle’s oppressive marriage to Jerry.
But this requires a different way of thinking, and that thinking is reflective thinking. Reflective thinking is thinking that allows all possibilities to be on the table. CT doesn’t like the idea that we can know the truth just by inspecting nature, or the way things are now. We need to be imaginative. This is why dialectical materialism is given to human imagination. If we can conceive of a particular type of human, a particular type of world, then we can create it. And we should create it. Of course, this is formula for social disaster.
The biblical view is that man can accomplish a great deal in creation and culture, and he should, but he must do this within the boundaries of God’s creation within creational norms and biblical law. Man’s imagination is not the limit of what he can do. God’s world bounded by his law is the limit of man can do. Point # 6: people must give up objective ways of thinking and embrace reflective ways of thinking, not taking any possibilities off the table.
Change the world; don’t just analyze it
Seventh, the task of CT is actively to work toward that secular utopia. Critical theorists don’t just analyze. Their task is to change the world, not just describe it. Better yet, to describe it in such a way as to change it. Their very CT changes the world. And they themselves are changed in changing it. Marsha and Belle change themselves in changing their little world. Everything is moving toward a world of secular perfection: no oppression, all equal. Point #7 — CT changes society. They liberate the oppressed and create equality.
This, in summary and simplicity, is Critical Theory.
And there’s nothing remotely Christian about it.
 Max Horkheimer, “Traditional Theory and Critical Theory,” Critical Theory, Selected Essays (New York: Continuum, 2002), 188–252; Michael Walsh, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West (New York and London: Encounter Books, 2015).