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Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

First, about the author: Bronner is Distinguished Professor of political science at Rutgers University. Second: Given his prescriptions about how to apply Critical Theory in the present cultural moment, he’s a full-throated supporter of this social philosophy. Third: In what follows, I lay out the hallmarks of Critical Theory by way of summarizing Bronner’s treatment and then conclude with my concerns.

Hallmarks of Critical Theory (CT):
SubversionBronner begins by linking the subversive element of CT with the origins of philosophy, dating back to Socrates (1). (Note: Bronner calls CT subversive, not me.) According to Bronner, subversion is necessary in order to undermine and upend the exploitation and repression “embedded” within Western civilization (1). Proponents of CT aim to empower victims of exploitation through “consciousness, education, and practical experience” (19).

MarxismCT was “conceived in the crucible of Marxism” (2), but since it is concerned with politics and culture rather than economics, it was eventually called “Western Marxism” (3). Karl Kosch and Georg Lukács provided the intellectual firepower behind what became known as the “Frankfurt School” (3).

SkepticismAdvocates of CT are deeply skeptical of tradition and claims to authority (1). (Again, these are not my words, but Bronner’s.) Given this entrenched skepticism, “Western Marxists were intent upon questioning hegemony” (18).

(Note: In contemporary culture, Critical Race Theory (an offshoot of CT) places white, heterosexual, cisgender, native born, able-bodied men at the top of the hegemony.)

Confronting society’s powerbrokers is necessary because they will always affirm the existing social order and resist its dismantling (20). For this reason, some forms of CT promote the use of violence in order to accomplish their objectives. I came across this view several months back as I read Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America. Meredith Talusan, a writer who identifies as a transgender author and intersectional journalist, argues that resorting to violence is necessary since “people in power have no motive to change their ways unless they feel threatened.”[1]

Capitalism = Alienation and Reification, which are the causes of human misery Alienation describes the psychological effects of exploitation, while reification is the process by which people become commodities. Exponents of CT argue that alienation and reification are the natural consequences of capitalism since it treats human beings instrumentally, that is, as means to an end—the end being financial profit (44). Additionally, the existence of an exploited class demonstrates that liberal republicanism has failed to achieve its Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity (43, 44, 54).

The only solution is to abolish capitalism: “The proletariat must now understand itself as the subject of historical action . . . whose purpose is the abolition of alienation and class society” (46).

LiberationThe need of the hour is revolution, which arises in the hearts of the disenfranchised. In classical Marxism this would be the working class. But for Western Marxists the disenfranchised would be “[w]omen, people of color, gays, and anti-imperialist movements at the periphery of the system” (90–93).

CosmopolitanismCosmopolitanism “views the world as a unitary global society in which the individual rights of people take precedence over the sovereign rights of territorial states.”[2] This view stands in contrast to communitarianism, which “views the world as a society of nation-states in which the primary responsibility of such states is to protect and enhance the rights and well-being of its own people while also caring for all people.”[3] Although he doesn’t use the language, Bronner makes plain that defenders of CT support an open border policy with respect to immigration. Hence, after appealing to Immanuel Kant’s definition of cosmopolitanism as the ability to feel at home everywhere, Bronner writes: “Today, the ethical imperative is to make the Other feel at home where we are” (121).

UtopianismBronner reports that all members of the Frankfurt School “showed an explicit interest in abolishing not merely social injustice but the psychological, cultural, and anthropological sources of unhappiness” (25). Whereas capitalism thrives on the concept of scarcity (which Herbert Marcuse believed was being “artificially maintained,” 72), “Utopia is the denial of this [scarcity]” (73). In the wake of the revolution envisioned by Marxists, scarcity will be overcome “and individuals [will] cease to view one another in instrumental terms. People are placed before profits, work turns into play, and a new sensibility takes shape that is almost biologically repulsed by cruelty, exploitation, and violence” (73).

Thankfully, Bronner admits that every attempt at implementing socialism has resulted in the exact opposite of its ideals. Usually the outcome was a bloody mess. One wonders, then: Why put forth this utopian ideal? Simply put, because it creates an avalanche of momentum: “The great movements were never inspired, and the barricades never mounted for purely pragmatic reasons. . . . Utopia has an existential component: it is the ideal for which countless individuals have proven willing to die” (77).

Religion is a problem – While he does not speak for all who champion CT, Bronner is quite clear: “religion remains the opium of the masses” (118). He continues: “the material critique of alienation is grounded in the critique of religion, and attempts to romanticize faith tend to reproduce the alienation that critical theory intended to overcome” (118, emphasis mine). Since the goal is revolution, competing allegiances must be sundered.

Additionally, for Bronner and other CT enthusiasts, religion is a no-no because it is authoritarian and thereby stifles individual autonomy (117).

Christians buying into CT should beware of this fact.

Utopia and Cosmic Justice – Whereas Christians look for cosmic justice in the age to come, CTers believe that if their policies are implemented rightly, we can start the parade now. Human misery will vanish, they maintain, once capitalism is crushed.

This explains Marx’s angst at the presence of the poor working class. In his mind, inequality of outcome is an indicator of systemic injustice. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer (44). Plus, he held that caring for the less fortunate superseded making profits.

As I’ve written elsewhere, humane treatment of all image bearers is a must. Further, caring for the poor is a biblical injunction. Still, while the Bible commands sacrificial love and casts a robust vision of human flourishing, it nowhere promises the end of all injustices before the eschaton. Given this reality, Marx’s assumption that the presence of the poor necessarily entailed injustice is unwarranted.

But beyond the biblical vision, economist Thomas Sowell has demonstrated in multiple publications that income disparities are multifactorial and not necessarily the result of wealthy people abusing the less fortunate.[4] Further, Sowell argues, “The all too familiar cliché about ‘the paradox of poverty in an affluent society’ is a paradox only to those who start with (1) a preconception of an egalitarian world, in defiance of history, and (2) a disregard of the arbitrary nature of the government-defined word ‘poverty.’”[5]

We might also ask how the poor have fared in socialist countries throughout history. Remember: Marx’s critique of liberal republicanism was that it failed to achieve its Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Fair enough.[6] But does anyone actually believe that socialist countries did? Again, let’s look at the numbers one more time:

USSR: 20 million deaths.
China: 60 million deaths.
Vietnam: 1 million deaths.
North Korea: 2 million deaths.
Cambodia: 2 million deaths.
Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths.
Latin America: 150,000 deaths.
Africa: 1.7 million deaths.
Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths

(Numbers cited in The Black Book of Communism published by Harvard University Press)

If you haven’t already, read Armando Valladares’s Against All Hope and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichthe latter of which Yevgeny Yevtushenko said “had the effect of a political bomb” for the Soviet Union.[7]

True, capitalism is imperfect. But the question we must ask is: Compared to what?

Sowell reminds readers:

“If the aversion of the intelligentsia to the level of inequality in the United States were shared by the poor in other countries, it would be hard to account for the long-standing, massive and sometimes desperate efforts of poor immigrants from around the world to reach America.”[8]

One final point: In order to usher all of humanity into a state of happiness, defenders of CT must assume that everyone shares their definition of happiness. But history does not bear this out. Actually, where it has been tried—the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cambodia, and Cuba, just to list a few—not only did mass executions numbering in the millions follow, but people fled the countries in droves.

But this is par for the course with cultural elites, as Thomas Sowell has documented extensively.[9] They write and speak as if they know better than the average person and view their calling as one of leading people toward liberation. Oddly enough, however, while they portray themselves as being “for the people,” they do not seek to preserve their autonomy.[10]

A sovereign state is required – Since purveyors of CT are convinced that their policies are good for society, Bronner says a sovereign state is required to enforce their ideas (118). Indeed, in light of the fact that all relationships are shot through with power dynamics, and power will always be a reality of life in this world, what is necessary is for the right group to be in power (122). In short, advancing the cause of CT is imperative if society is to reach a state of utopian bliss. The exercise of violence may be necessary in order to achieve the vision, but the end result is worth it: The powerful must finally be accountable to the powerless (114).

As Phillip E. Johnson observes:

“If one has as expansive a vision of what social justice requires as [Leon] Trotsky did, one has to be prepared to go the distance with thought reform, firing squads, concentration camps and other mechanisms of terror. . . . To a radical redistributionist it is the pain of the poor that counts, and to heed the protesting squeals of the exploiters is mere squeamishness that leads to more misery in the end.”[11]

As a worldview, Critical Theory provides a coherent lens through which to see and interpret reality. It checks all the boxes, furnishing devotees with a creation, fall, redemption, and consummation narrative. But despite its coherence, it departs from the biblical plotline on multiple fronts—from its profile of humanity, to its depiction of salvation, to its portrayal of the beatific vision.

For these reasons, I cannot embrace it and would advise my fellow Christians to read and listen to critical theorists with caution.



[1] Meredith Talusan, “We’ve Always Been Nasty: Why the Feminist Movement Needs Trans Women and Gender-Noncomforming Femmes,” in Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, eds. Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding (New York: Picador, 2017), 197.

[2] Mark R. Amstutz, Just Immigration: American Policy in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Sowell, Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 141.

[5] Ibid., 174.

[6] For America in particular, see Shelby Steele, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[7] Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Introduction to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, trans. Ralph Parker (New York: Signet Classics, 2008), xvii.

[8] Sowell, Wealth, Poverty and Politics, 194.

[9] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

[10] Ibid., 94, 105.

[11] Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 120, 121.