Social Justice: What's Marx Got to Do with It?

In my previous post we considered the underlying assumptions of the social justice movement.  In this one, we will consider its Marxist origins.  My contention is that social justice is best understood as a euphemism for what is variously called Neo-, Western, or Cultural Marxism. 

It’s called Neo-Marxism to distinguish it from Marxism in its original form, Western Marxism because of its adaptation to western societies, and Cultural Marxism because it takes the principle of class struggle in traditional Marxist theory and applies it to other social struggles in the broader culture.  This last term is perhaps the most helpfully descriptive.  But to understand Cultural Marxism, we must first understand Classical Marxism. 

Classical Marxism
Classical Marxism is the name given to the social, political, and economic thought of Karl Marx (1818-1883).  Marx and his associate, Friedrich Engels, were the co-authors of the Communist Manifesto (1848).  They, along with their immediate ideological heirs, believed that social life is dominated by economic concerns, and especially what they alleged to be the inevitable conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the two main classes of society—the upper class of property owners, manufacturers, bankers, and merchants versus the lower class of manual laborers.  The opening lines of the Manifesto read:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.  Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.[1]

The upper class grows rich, Marx alleged, because it exploits the lower class.  This state of economic oppression will only worsen over time.  The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer until the lower class finally rises to forcibly overthrow the rule of the upper class and equitably redistribute capital, land, and the means of production.  According to Marx, these things should not be owned by private individuals, but owned communally.  Hence, the name communism.  The first objective of their ten-point program was, “Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.”[2]
The idea of communism was not original with Marx.  Various forms of it go back at least as far as Plato (c. 428-348 b.c.).  Small communities have experimented with it—e.g., Christian monasteries and convents, the British colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth, and the 20th century kibbutzim in Israel. 

Marx didn’t invent communism, but he gave it a seemingly scientific foundation, and this was its appeal.  Prior to Marx, the idea had largely been thought a utopian dream.  But through his study of history, Marx claimed to have discovered certain social and economic laws that were as ironclad as any law of nature.  From these laws he drew the conclusion that not only is communism preferable to capitalism on moral grounds (being allegedly more humane), and more efficient and productive (since disproven by history), but also historically inevitable.  He argued that societies pass through several economic stages, each failing because of its internal contradictions.  The same would eventually happen to capitalism, the final stage before communism.  This last step, however, could only come about through violent revolution.  Marx believed the gap between rich and poor would grow, not only in terms of the uneven distribution of wealth, but also in terms of relative numbers.  Those at the lower end of the upper class would fall into the lower class so that the number of people in the lower class would continue to increase until the disparities between the two groups would become intolerable.  Eventually, realizing the strength of their numbers, the lower class would rise up and overthrow the upper class and redistribute wealth and the means of production on a more equitable basis.  They would establish “a dictatorship of the proletariat.”  After an initial period of transition, government would fade away as a classless society emerged, predicated on the common ownership of property.

Several communist revolutions took place in the 20th century.  The first, and one of the most consequential, was the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that led to the creation of the Soviet Union.  However, when the call for a worldwide Marxist revolution to topple all the existing capitalist systems went largely unheeded by western nations,[3] it became necessary to ask why.  Why was it that what seemed so obvious to Marxist thinkers was not so obvious to the masses in the West? 

Cultural Marxism 
Antonio Gramsci of Italy (1891-1937) and Georg Lukacs of Hungary (1885-1971) believed they had discovered the answer.  The foundational problem with western society was not narrowly economic, but broadly cultural.  They argued that the bourgeoisie maintains its position in society, not by force, but by controlling the culture.  The term Gramsci used for this was “cultural hegemony.”[4]  The upper class promotes among the masses certain beliefs, values, customs, language, and perceptions of reality that reinforce the social status quo, which is advantageous to itself.  The reason the masses in Western nations haven’t risen up in violent revolution against their unjust capitalist oppressors is because the cultural forces in those nations have conditioned them to think they’re not oppressed, and that if they were oppressed, violent revolution would be a morally wrong way to address it.  The entire cultural ethos of Western society causes the masses to think the current capitalist system is simply a commonsense view of the world.  What was necessary, therefore, was to change the culture—to exchange one cultural hegemony for another.  But how was that to be done?  By Marxist thinkers infiltrating every aspect of society and seeking to change the system from within, not by sudden, violent revolution, but by gradual, internal transformation—a process later described as “a long march through the institutions.”[5]

Much of the early theoretical groundwork for this march was done by the members of the Institute for Social Research,[6] associated with the University of Frankfurt, and therefore also called the Frankfurt School of social theory. 

If it can be said that in the early years of its history the Institut [sic] concerned itself primarily with an analysis of bourgeois society’s socio-economic substructure, in the years after 1930 its prime interest lay in its cultural superstructure.[7]

The leaders of the Frankfurt School—among them, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse—realized the fundamental transformation of the West wasn’t likely to come from the working class alone.  Conditions were actually pretty good for workers in the West.  They didn’t have a sufficient grievance to agitate for the kind of social change the Marxists desired.  Therefore, the members of the Frankfurt School looked for additional agents to bring it about, agents who had grievances against the existing system—or if none existed, where they could be manufactured.  This was key.  People in the West had become habituated to their misery through the “slave morality” of Christian ethics.[8]  For the Marxist project to succeed, the pillars of Western culture (largely built on the Judeo-Christian view of God, man, and the world, and the laws and customs deriving therefrom) must be toppled.  It was this realization that led to the Frankfurt School’s most dangerous venture, the development of Critical Theory.  

Critical Theory
According to the Frankfurt School, every aspect of Western culture must be subjected to relentless criticism, exposing how the traditional structures of society serve to protect the interests of oppressors and keep the oppressed under their thumb.  A theory is “critical” in this view if it serves the purpose of undermining the existing social order so that a new order can be rebuilt in its place.  It is the “ideology of critique.”[9]  The same critique that Marx applied in the realm of economics—the rich have become rich because they have exploited the poor, and they continue to benefit from the existing order because it’s rigged in their favor—is applied to other social relationships in terms of group power dynamics.  Thus,

- Men are oppressors; women are oppressed
- Whites are oppressors; racial minorities are oppressed
- Those who hold to traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethics are oppressors; those who deviate from them are oppressed
- Christians are oppressors; adherents of minority religions are oppressed
- Citizens are oppressors; immigrants are oppressed 

Individuals are judged in terms of their group identities.  Members of a dominant group are assumed to participate in, or to be complicit in oppression.  At the very least, they unfairly benefit from their group identity.  They are “privileged.”  On the other hand, those in the minority group are assumed to be oppressed.  And even if no overt acts of oppression against them can be pointed out, they are nevertheless victims of “microaggressions,” small, unintended, unself-conscious acts of oppression, for which the perpetrators must be shamed and punished.

The divisiveness of these ideas is obvious.  But then again, that’s the point.  It serves the Marxist cause to fan the flames of discontent, grievance, envy, resentment, and distrust.  The strategy is to build a coalition of the aggrieved strong enough in numbers to implement the Marxist vision, unachievable by appealing to discontented workers alone.

The “long march through the institutions,” has been largely successful.  One of its most noteworthy victories has been achieved in the field of education, especially in the universities, where our nation’s professionals are trained.  The humanities and social sciences are dominated by Critical Theory and are nearly a lost cause.  The hard sciences fair better, but not even they have been immune from its effects.[10]  

Other opinion-forming professions are also dominated by Critical Theory (e.g., journalism, media production, publishing, the arts and entertainment industry, etc.), not to mention law and Silicon Valley. 

As a strategy, the principle of the “long march” is sound.  It is, in fact, how the West was won for the Christian faith in the first place—and also how it will be regained.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough (Matt. 13:33).  Under the influence of a false pietism, a truncated view of the Great Commission, and an errant eschatology, Christians have retreated from the realm of culture.  The time is long overdue to reverse course, to understand our call as being larger than “saving souls,” as vital as this is.  Our call includes bringing Biblical principles to bear in every activity of life and every calling.  We must not think, or instill in our children the thought, that serving God consists in vocational ministry alone (i.e., serving as a pastor or missionary).  Every lawful calling is an opportunity to serve God if we do so distinctively as Christians, whether in education, agriculture, journalism, medicine, politics, sports, law, homemaking, information technology, engineering, architecture, retail, manufacturing, banking, etc. 

We have a long march of our own to conduct for the glory of God our king and the good of our neighbor. 

Good reads: 
By P. Andrew Sandlin

By Ardel Caneday

[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York, NY:  Penguin Books, 1967, reprinted 1985), p. 79
[2] Ibid, p. 104
[3] The Spanish Revolution of 1936 was the only communist revolution in western Europe.
[4] “Gramsci’s translated writings contain no precise definition of cultural hegemony.  What comes closest is his often-quoted characterization of hegemony as ‘the “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is “historically” caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.’” T. J. Jackson Lears, The Concept of Cultural Hegemony:  Problems and Possibilities.   See also, Dante Germino, Antonio Gramsci:  Architect of a New Politics (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press, 1990)
[6] The original name, the Institute for Marxism, was abandoned as too provocative.  See Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination:  A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Berkley, CA:  University of California Press, 1996), p. 8.  The official creation of the Institute occurred on February 3, 1923.  Ibid, p. 10
[7] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, p. 21 (emphasis added)
[8] Max Horkheimer spoke approvingly of Nietzsche’s critique of Christian ethics as “slave morality.”  Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, p. 50
[9] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, Preface to the 1996 Edition


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