The New Face of Marxism
The critical race theorists are “synthetic revolutionaries” who have filtered left-wing ideology through a postmodern lens.
I recently spoke at a symposium in Budapest, Hungary, on the topic of critical race theory. I argued that critical race theory is the new face of Marxism, adapted to the conditions of a post-modern, post-communist world. And it is not merely an American phenomenon. I hosted a panel with conservative intellectuals from The Netherlands, England, Italy, and France, all of whom have felt the encroachment of “le Wokisme.”
What does it mean for those of us in the United States? And will America’s fixation with left-wing racialism conquer the world?
I’d like to give a couple of remarks to demonstrate what critical race theory is, then talk about some of its most prominent features—not necessarily accepting all of its premises at face value, but showing how it operationalizes in the United States—and then provide at the end a warning for how it might be superimposed back to European countries.
Critical race theory promises to be the new face of Marxism. In Hungary, you’ve seen the old face of Marxism—quite a hideous face—and it’s been reinvented using some distinctly American categories. I think there are two key innovations in this ideology. First, it’s Marxism passed through the filter of race, which prisms out from there. And second, it’s Marxism adapted to the post-modern and post-Soviet historical condition. In a sense, it’s post-Marxist Marxism that is grappling with and adapting itself to the failures of the twentieth century.
One of the things that Danube Institute president John O’Sullivan mentioned is this linguistic game the Left always plays: “You can’t define this, you can’t define that.” It’s a bankrupt game of words. The truth is that sometimes general concepts are very hard to define. Sometimes a single signifier can be interpreted in different ways. I don’t know if they do this in Europe or if it’s uniquely American, but you’ve seen people on the street corner playing three-card Monte, where they move the cards and try to hide the ball. It’s the same thing with words. They’re playing a game of three-card Monte with language.
But, in fact, critical race theory is relatively simple to define—they define it themselves, all you have to do is read their literature. I think they would argue, if we treat it at face value, that critical race theory is an academic discipline that holds that the United States is a fundamentally racist country, that the “oppressor-oppressed” distinction can be designated along racial lines with a white patriarchal oppressor and a subordinated racial minority “oppressed,” and that, in order to achieve “racial equity,” or equality of outcomes on the aggregate between racial groups, you have to do away with all of the oppressive structures in the United States, including the capitalist economy, the two-parent family, and all of the laws that promote at the surface level equality and freedom, which, according to the critical race theorists, are merely a disguised way of advancing racial domination, to the point where critical race theorists even argue that Abraham Lincoln, the 14th Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act, are all merely insidious and increasingly clever schemes to advance racism.
From “Organic Intellectual” to “Synthetic Revolutionary”
So, let’s talk a bit about how this plays out in practice. In practice, the “oppressor” and “oppressed” have gone through a really remarkable inversion. If you look at the twentieth century, at least as they portrayed themselves at the beginning, Marxist social movements were centered around the working class, the disenfranchised, and the industrial proletariat. They were going to take over and commandeer the industrial apparatus, then the governing apparatus, in order to make a more fair and equitable distribution of resources. That was the theory.
But in the critical race theory system—which, of course, has precursors in the actual experience of historical Marxism—you have an inversion, in which the “oppressed” are actually a class of elite bureaucratic, affirmative-action intellectuals, the people running the educational bureaucracy, and the left-wing media. So, you have elites that have gained positions within elite institutions claiming the mantle of being the “oppressed.” And so, you have the privileged masquerading as the “oppressed,” and the “oppressor” is designated as conservative, white, working-class Americans. So the people who are working in industry, the people who are working in this service economy, the people who are at the lower strata, are now designated the “oppressors.”
This is quite a strange inversion. In the past, the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci proposed the ideal of the “organic intellectual,” which is the concept that the people themselves, who may not have a pedigree or elite institutional status, were the true carriers of the Marxist philosophy. They had the true insight and they were organized in an organic manner from the bottom up. Whereas with critical race theory, you have a self-conscious and total inversion, in which you have now the “synthetic revolutionary.” You have a revolutionary that is afforded privilege because of affirmative action policies and other cultural practices. You have the revolutionary that has also gained entry into elite institutions—whether they’re Ivy League institutions, premier state institutions, or parts of the bureaucracy, even in corporations—who then claim the mantle of the elite revolutionary, or, as I would propose, the “synthetic revolutionary.”
Consequently, I think you also have a shift in the goals—not always in the stated goals, but in the implicit goals. If you look back to the black revolutionaries of the 1960s in the United States, the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, these were, in some sense, classic Marxist-Leninists in their rhetoric. They proposed seizing the means of production, taking over the Ford car manufacturing plant, running it themselves, and providing automobiles and other goods for the oppressed and the urban minority populations. Eldridge Cleaver was someone who traveled a bit in Europe, North Africa, and the United States, and promised this in his writing. He said the lumpenproletariat was the inheritor of the Marxist line and the Black lumpenproletariat, in particular, was going to seize the means of production and then take what was their due.
You don’t see that at all anymore. The new synthetic revolutionary class is profoundly uninterested in economic production. You’re not going to send any of the Ivy League professors to manage the assembly line at a GM plant in Detroit, Michigan. This is very unappealing to this new revolutionary. And so, what you have is you’ve moved from a desire for economic redistribution to symbolic redistribution. What they’re really fighting over is a spoils system in a post-modern and largely symbolic manner. They want titles, they want prestige, and they want jobs in the bureaucracy. These are in many cases fake jobs: for example, “diversity, equity, and inclusion” officer at Google. This is a highly prized job because you get to work at Google, you’re making maybe three, four hundred thousand dollars a year in salary, and you get to play-act as a revolutionary, imposing gender pronouns or imposing critical consciousness exercises on vulnerable and socially awkward computer programmers.
And so they’re taking the titles, they’re taking the prestige, and they’re taking what amount to new public and privately-funded sinecures, to promote their ideology without having to do the drudgery or learning the technical expertise of running an assembly line or running a large agricultural enterprise. What they’ve done is, essentially, come to peace with the capitalist production apparatus, and they’re saying: ‘We are going to delegate production to the capitalists, but what we want is control over the elite cultural institutions.’ And what we’re finding is that over time, this, of course, degrades the productive capacity, but, for the time being, it’s an almost parasitical relationship that is more than enough to serve the interests of the new synthetic revolutionaries.
How the New Left Seizes Power
The power strategies—this is the next key observation.
One of them, of course, is, as it always has been: violence. We saw this in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd. You had riots in more than 150 American cities, and this was all designed to increase the pressure, to get more concessions. And they manipulate three categories in the experience of the average person: guilt, memory, and identity.
The first is guilt, even more than fear, which was the old Marxist category—you take a baton to the side of someone’s head, you drag them out of their home in the middle of the night, and you threaten to execute their family. Now, they’re implementing critical race theory in K-12 education, for example, dividing children by race to two sides of the room, telling children of European descent: ‘You should feel guilt. You should feel shame. You should feel responsible for historical crimes committed by people who look like you.’ And telling the other side of the room: ‘You should feel anger. You should feel rage, you should feel a spirit of vengeance for the crimes perpetrated against people who looked like you in the past, by people who looked like your classmates on the other side of the room.’
The second is degrading historical memory. So, taking the false and tendentious critical race theory narrative of American history, that all of the landmarks of progress—the abolition of slavery, the 14th Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act—were really false consciousness. They were a mythology that was designed to put the revolutionary class to sleep. Again, this is historically false, but the idea is to use this narrative to then erase the historical memory—sometimes physically, tearing down statues, but oftentimes symbolically, in curriculum books—trying to dispatch with any narrative of American goodness or greatness, or even a complex and multifaceted narrative of American history, and to replace it with an acid wash of American history.
And the third is to work on identity as a whole and to de-legitimize entire categories of identity, creating a series of identity taboos on the intersectional hierarchy, which is not just a hierarchy of perceived oppression, but is actually a reverse hierarchy of moral value. That’s really the key. It’s actually using a relativistic frame in order to impose a very moralistic idea: collective guilt, scapegoating, and discrimination.
What do they want? That’s a question I found to be quite interesting because critical race theorists never quite tell you what they want. What would an ideal society look like for you? How would you govern the institutions? What would you do as far as legislation? It’s never quite clear, but what is absolutely clear is that the critical race theorists—again, in contrast to the precursors and the 20th-century Marxist revolutionaries—have actually no desire to govern. If you look at the early history of revolution, if you look at Lenin’s writing when he was in exile, say what you will about him, but he had the desire to govern. He had a clear plan of action. He wanted to seize power at the top and impose his will on everyone below.
Critical race theorists have no such ambitions and no such desires, which may be a blessing in disguise. They’re happy to exist as part of the bureaucracy. They want to operate only from their position as a critical element. They want to criticize, but they want to abdicate all responsibility of governing. Their strategy is, at heart, an anti-democratic strategy. They want to enter the layer of bureaucracy, K-12 education, post-secondary education, corporate HR, and the federal bureaucracy. They want to advance their ideology laterally, outside the legislative process, outside the system of democratic consent, and then outside the consent of say, parents, in a K-12 school classroom.
In fact, for the first year that we challenged them and provided the evidence about what they were doing, they denied the existence of their own ideology. This, again, is quite strange historically. It doesn’t actually project much confidence at all. If you’re imposing your ideology, you’re confronted with evidence of the imposition, and then you’re denying that your ideology exists, I think it’s because they want to operate in a method that is wholly anti-democratic, because they know that, subjected to democratic scrutiny and subjected to democratic decision-making, people would reject their ideology out of hand.
And so, it’s this very odd one-two dance. It’s something of a Texas two-step, in which they coexist with democratic rule, while at the same time trying to subvert democratic rule through their authority in the bureaucracy, that, again, has never been sanctioned. And, unfortunately, is very difficult to get rid of, because any time you try to impose any limit on the bureaucracy, they start screaming. It’s really amazing. They are saying: ‘We’re not doing critical race theory in K-12 schools, but if you prohibit critical race theory in K-12 schools, this is beyond the pale, this is unacceptable.’ Which leads to the question, if you’re not teaching critical race theory, what are we banning? Theoretically, we should be banning nothing, and yet, their response demonstrates the lie.
So, how do they impose power? It’s not through top-down control. It’s not through legislation. It’s through an increasingly decentralized method of control that is not coordinated directly. It can’t be traced back to one person. It’s not organized as a conspiracy, but as a set of mutually reinforcing incentives and cultural patterns that use media, technology, schools, human resources departments, and even corporate messaging campaigns that have all lined up behind a left-wing orthodoxy that has gained popularity in a certain elite stratum of American society, that is then using those institutions to impose its ideology through the various channels and creating incentives so that transgressing that ideology is seen as a mortal sin.
And, really, you put at risk your reputation, you put at risk your occupation, you put at risk your comfort, and in many cases, for someone like me, if you go after it a little bit harder, you put at risk to a certain extent your physical safety. They’ve created a series of incentives, beginning with the softest incentive—a suggestion, a repetition, a training according to the media narrative—all the way to the street militant layer, where someone will break your window, someone will physically threaten you, someone will show up at your house, someone will send you death threats in the mail. You have an increasingly soft to hard method of enforcement.
The Road to Pure Negation
At the end of the day, what I’ve learned studying the intellectual history and reporting on the ideology in practice, is that critical race theory ends in pure negation. It has no positive vision of society. It’s not a reformist agenda. You can see this in the writings of Derrick Bell, the Harvard Law professor who’s considered the godfather of critical race theory, whose students established the discipline of critical race theory. Derrick Bell was a smart man. He was, at the beginning of his career, a dedicated civil rights attorney. He de-segregated and ran lawsuits in, I believe, 300 school districts in the Deep South to integrate those schools. But he lost his faith in the United States and the civil rights movement and went to a philosophy of pure racial pessimism.
And, in fact, he was incentivized by elite institutions at the time to constantly reinforce that pessimism. He was, in a sense, financially and reputationally rewarded the more pessimistic he became, so that towards the end of his career, he developed really a racial paranoia. He thought and made the argument in print that black Americans were on the verge of a racial genocide in the United States. He said racism was the permanent and indestructible feature of American life. He said that even the election of Barack Obama was not a demonstration of racial progress, but was simply another governing elite in charge of a racist country.
He was, of course, celebrated for this. But what you see in his writing and you see in the CRT movement as a whole, is that they can never move beyond critique. They abdicate all responsibility for proposing any policy, and ultimately they’re synthetic revolutionaries who are only interested in maintaining their own elite reputation status and sinecure. That’s all it boils down to. The great economist Thomas Sowell once criticized Derrick Bell, saying that Bell moved away from desiring an equality society and ended up desiring a “revenge society.” So the spirit of revenge was really the driving force that could provide no reconciliation, no transcendence, no progress, even on its own terms.
And so, I’m curious to listen to my fellow panelists, but I’ll end with just a few small comments. As I’ve spent the last week in Budapest, I see many American exports. I can get avocado toast, I can read everything in English, I can get sweatshirts with the names of American states on them, even in the Hungarian clothing shops. And so, even if something like critical race theory is not justified in any way by the history of Hungary—it’s very difficult to compare American historical conditions with the Hungarian historical conditions—it will find a way, because critical race theory is not interested in accurate history. It’s interested in blanket superimposition.
I’m very curious to hear especially from my Hungarian colleagues, but what I’ll say tentatively is that it does seem from what I’ve read in the foreign press—which I take with a large grain of salt, maybe a whole shaker of salt—that Hungary is in some ways an expression of this inversion of the “oppressor” and “oppressed.” Hungary is not the richest nation in Europe by any stretch. Hungary, from my reading of history and of the current policies, is a country interested in rediscovering, after the collapse of communism, its historical identity and its religious identity. Its family policy is oriented towards helping the broad working class in the country, which makes it, in the schema of critical race theory, a kind of oppressor faction or oppressor nation.
And, perhaps this is why when I read the left-wing press in the United States, it always has a meltdown about Hungary. Actually, when the Western left-wing media criticizes Hungary, they criticize Hungary in the same way that they criticize me, so I feel an immediate affinity and affection for the country, and I suspect that the narratives are false in the same way that the attacks on my work are false.
But this is all to say that American exports are very powerful. Many of them are very good, but some of them are not so good, and this is going to be one of them. If it hasn’t made entry, I know in the UK it has, and in other countries in Western Europe, it will be arriving shortly, so you should prepare yourselves politically, prepare yourselves intellectually, and not rest on the assumption that because it’s a false theory and because it can’t be transposed accurately onto your history, it will not find a way.
This video is sponsored by Manhattan Institute.