In debates about critical race theory and other manifestations of identity politics, Americans are being confronted with a particularly virulent form of Marxism, which some call cultural Marxism. Its adherents think they can create a new reality, because at bottom they do not believe in objective nature. Conservatives engaged in an important conversation over the exact proportion of natural law and natural rights must ensure their attention is not diverted from sworn opponents who deny the existence of either.
Very roughly, the natural-law crowd emphasizes society’s “common good,” while those on the natural-rights side stress individual liberties. They have bigger problems than each other though.
Adherents of a new left have no time for fundamental truths, but believe that each era’s conceptual framework is what creates reality. Man may apprehend natural phenomena through his senses, but he can only comprehend the world through society’s reigning concepts.
Marxists believe those in power create this perceptional superstructure. “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” Marx himself wrote in “The Communist Manifesto.” Max Horkheimer, the neo-communist who led the Frankfurt School in the 1930s and ’40s and first came up with Critical Theory, was as usual more wordy, but essentially said the same thing.
“The power of healthy human understanding, or common sense … are conditioned by the fact that the world of objects to be judged is in large measure produced by an activity that is itself determined by the very ideas which help the individual to recognize that world and to grasp it conceptually,” Horkheimer wrote in a foundational 1935 essay.
To critical race theory, an American mutation of critical theory, that powerful conceptual framework is white supremacy. In fact, the first task of CRT, wrote the editors of the 1995 collection of essays that serves as the theory’s tablet (which they refer to as “The Big Red Book”), is “to understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America.”
It is embedded in the “‘ordinary business’ of society,” wrote Richard Delgado in his far slimmer primer on CRT.
Man Creates Reality
The obvious implication is that, if you eliminate the conceptual framework — presto! you change nature and reality. Horkheimer says this is what happens with each passing historical era: “There are connections between the forms of judgment and the historical periods. A brief indication will show what is meant. The classificatory judgment is typical of prebourgeois society: this is the way it is, and man can do nothing about it…. Critical theory maintains: it need not be so; man can change reality” (italics added for emphasis).
From this, we can extrapolate why members of this new left believe that man can change his sex, which is just “assigned” at birth: because they are both Godless and materialist, they believe man is omnipotent. Things are not as they are because God or nature made them that way. Things are as they are because we conceive them so. Man creates reality.
This turns philosophy and theory on their head. Philosophy studies the true nature of things. But since there is no fundamental truth, philosophy becomes the motor to create a new reality.
Marx himself, once again, started it, writing in 1843, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Five years later, he added in the Manifesto, “Communism abolishes eternal truths. It abolishes all religion and all morality.”
CRT’s Goals to Dismantle Society
About a century and a half later, Harvard University’s Derrick Bell, the godfather of CRT, wrote, “As I see it, critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with the radical assessment of it.” The works of CRT are suffused with calls for “theoretical deconstruction” and the like.
These are the true foes of those who want to conserve what is good about America (i.e., conservatives). They see all of American society as an oppressive hegemonic narrative that should be destroyed and replaced with a counter-narrative. “I believe we all have work to do to keep dismantling the organizing principle of this society,” says Alicia Garza, a founder of Black Lives Matter, a force that has already done a lot of cultural dismantling.
But starting in late 2020, a force has risen to push back: parents. “It didn’t take long for parents of all races to figure out that their children were being indoctrinated into a repellent ideology. Since the implementation of CRT at the school level began, genuine parental resistance to it bubbled up,” writes Abe Greenwald in a Commentary piece chronicling the counter-revolution.
Conservatives Shouldn’t Forget Common Enemy
Bright conservative minds engaged in an intellectual debate over the future of conservatism cannot forget this other fight against our common enemies.
On one side of the conservative debate (and this is an oversimplification) are some who believe the emphasis should be on natural law (the eternal precepts that govern man’s action); on the other are those who stress the natural rights, or the individual rights, that man has because of his nature.
As Catholic University’s Melissa Moschella recently told me, they are tied at the hip, however. We have a natural right to free speech because our nature permits us to speak, but also because free speech is a prerequisite for discovering truth, an aspect of human flourishing. Our nature also permits us to commit murder, but we have no right to exercise that capacity because it is contrary to human flourishing, and therefore to natural law.
These distinctions, let me assure you, are lost on Marx, Bell, or Garza.
I have good friends and mentors on both sides of the conservative debate. They are intelligent, patriotic, and courageous. Their issues do matter. But let’s remember who are the real enemies of fundamental truth, and not become immersed in internal debates over theological principles, as the Byzantines did in 1453 when the Ottomans were at the gate.