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  • Corey Lee Wilson

Critical Theory Shows Why 'Progressivism' Isn’t Progressive: It’s Recycled Marxism

According to historian William Leuchtenburg: The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.

However, an entrenched and growing bureaucracy, without drastic measures, becomes an entrenched and immovable force, whether it’s in American government or our educational systems. And because the intellectual capital of our educational institutions is so heavily weighted with liberal and leftist ideals, it appears they’ve become a safe haven for today’s progressivism movement, starting with the Frankfort School at Columbia established in 1934 during the midst of the Great Depression.

The Frankfurt School’s biggest intellectual creation was Critical Theory, an approach to cultural analysis that focuses on criticizing existing social structures. To counter Critical Theory, Social Justice, and Progressivism, I argue that the message, goals, and sapience from organizations like the Heterodox Academy, FIRE, and the Templeton Foundation and their “progressive” programs, trump critical theory as you will see in later articles and Chapter 12 of The SAPIENT Being.

Along with sapience, they are creating a reasonable and illuminating path for second age of enlightenment on campus to follow that promotes viewpoint diversity, cherishes intellectual humility and fights for freedom of speech. To understand and appreciate this second age of campus enlightenment, we need to first understand and identify Critical Theory, New Modernism, and Progressivism.

Understanding Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School

Critical Theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole. It differs from traditional theory, which focuses only on understanding or explaining society. Critical theories aim to dig beneath the surface of social life and uncover the assumptions that keep human beings from a full and true understanding of how the world works.

Over the years, many social scientists and philosophers who rose to prominence after the Frankfurt School have adopted the goals and tenets of critical theory. We can recognize critical theory today in many feminist theories and approaches to conducting social science. It is also found in critical race theory, cultural theory, gender, and queer theory, as well as in media theory and media studies.

Critical theory as it is known today can be traced to Marx's critiques of the economy and society. It is inspired greatly by Marx's theoretical formulation of the relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure and focuses on how power and domination operate.

Following in Marx's critical footsteps, Hungarian György Lukács and Italian Antonio Gramsci developed theories that explored the cultural and ideological sides of power and domination. After seeing that wealth and quality of life for workers was increasing after his imprisonment from the Italian fascist regime, Gramsci theorized from his many letters published in his Prison Notebooks written between 1929 and 1935, that traditional Western values must be destroyed in order to promote Communism, because old Marxist economic arguments could no longer be made.

In other words, workers were no longer poor enough and desperate enough for Communism to appeal to them. For these ideas to take hold, cultural structures such as religion (Christianity), the family, and traditional values of personal responsibility must be broken down.

Shortly after Lukács and Gramsci published their ideas, the Institute for Social Research was founded at the University of Frankfurt, and the Frankfurt School of critical theorists took shape. The work of the Frankfurt School members, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse (whom I already introduced), is considered the heart of critical theory.

One of the most influential members of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse fled to Columbia University in New York in 1934 following Hitler’s rise to power where the new Frankfurt School of Columbia was started. The Frankfurt School, known more appropriately as Critical Theory, is a philosophical and sociological movement spread across many universities around the world.

During the civil rights and antiwar movements against the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s, Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, a 1964 best seller by the philosopher, primarily known by the "power of negative thinking" became the standard for revolutionary speech in the movement he called the "Great Refusal."

His devotees included campus radical Angela Davis, from Brandeis University. Countless students read his books. New Left marchers carried posters of his face, along with images of the Chinese communist leader Mao Tse Tung, the Argentinean guerrilla leader Che Guevara, and the Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh.

In contrast to orthodox Marxism, Marcuse champions non-integrated forces of minorities, outsiders, and radical intelligentsia, attempting to nourish oppositional thought and behavior through promoting radical thinking and opposition. One-Dimensional Man made Marcuse famous for this.



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