Why Critical Race Theory Can’t Escape Its Revolutionary Roots
And why this means it could be harmful for reformist progress.
Welcome back to TaraElla Report LvCT, Liberalism vs Critical Theory. In this new series, we will explore the differences between the critical theory worldview and the liberal worldview. I will also be discussing, from a liberal perspective, how we might handle the conflicts the inevitably arise, and how we can stand our ground firmly while still being constructive about advancing social justice. At least in the beginning, I will be focusing on critical race theory, because it is the most discussed form of critical theory right now, but the themes I will be discussing can actually be applied to most, if not all, types of critical theory.
In the first two parts of this series, I want to talk about the roots of critical race theory (CRT), and the roots of critical theory more broadly, and what this means in terms of its incompatibility with liberal and reformist thinking. I will be highlighting where the conflict actually lies, and what we could do about it as committed liberals.
To understand the roots of CRT and critical theory more generally, I think we need to place these schools of thinking in the wider landscape of Western progressive philosophy. In particular, we should examine it through two important perspectives: the reform vs revolution split, which I will be focusing on today, and the liberal vs anti-liberal split, which will be the topic of the next installment.
Why CRT is Inherently Revolutionary
The reform vs revolution split has always been a fundamental divide in Western progressive philosophy, theory and politics.
In the beginning, Europe was ruled by absolute monarchies, and the only path to progressive change seemed to be revolution. However, after a messy period, where there was a combination of revolution, reform, reaction and backsliding, the reformist program began to show great promise by the late 19th century. The gradual success of reformism, including the arrival of democracy, the expansion of free speech, the gradual expansion of the franchise to all adult citizens regardless of race, religion, gender or class, and the legalization of trade unions and collective bargaining, fundamentally made Western society better by the 20th century. Objectively, the successes of the reformist program were undeniable. This meant that, as time went on, more and more progressives became committed to the reformist path, and rejected the need for any further revolution. On the other hand, there were those who continued to insist on the need for revolution.
Up until World War II, the revolutionary faction of Western progressivism was still quite strong. This was supported by a workers’ based revolutionary Left, which made sense because of the continued poverty and misery of the working class. However, around the time of WWII, further progress was made, in the form of the New Deal in America and a generous social safety net covering healthcare, education, unemployment and more in many European countries. By the mid 20th century, it was clear that workers in the West were much more satisfied with their lives, and revolution was clearly not imminent, given the majority were happy with the status quo broadly speaking. Thus even more progressives, union leaders and thinkers alike, gravitated towards reformism.
Revolution became a lonely cause in the West, and committed revolutionaries were desperate to find a way forward. In particular, they needed to find new revolutionary subjects, now that a purely workers’ revolution was highly unlikely. It was at this time that the fundamental ideas behind CRT gradually became popular among academically inclined revolutionaries. While Critical Theory was invented by the Frankfurt School back in the 1930s, it only became popular and influential after the 1960s, particularly in the English speaking world. It was also in the mid 20th century that the various ideas that would become postmodernism first emerged in France, and later spread to the English speaking world.
Contemporary critical theories of all kinds, including CRT, generally incorporate influences from the original Critical Theory of the German Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse’s Freudo-Marxian theories, French postmodern philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, and other philosophical fellow travelers. This inheritance makes them inherently revolutionary at their roots.
In particular, they are inherently revolutionary because of a core assumption that lie at the bottom of their worldview, an assumption that scholars of CRT have plainly stated in various ways in their works. The assumption is that there are pervasive systems of oppression based around oppressor group vs oppressed group dynamics working throughout society, and that our political and legal systems, as well as our cultural conventions and institutions, are all inherently part of these systems of oppression. The implications of this is that trying to reform our way to social justice is futile, and we must burn it all down and start over again.
The Conflict Between Reform and Revolution
In recent years, there has been a view among some on the Left that reform and revolution are not incompatible. This is a romantic view, and one that is often promoted by revolutionaries who want to recruit followers from reformist movements. But an objective appraisal of the evidence shows otherwise. As I often like to point out, the gay marriage movement was successful because it was clearly reformist, and there was not much revolutionary sentiment to compete with it at the time. On the other hand, the 1960s and 70s ended up a mixed bag, and was followed by the reactionary 1980s because revolutionism limited the progress of reform. As somebody who is passionate about making people’s lives better in a practical way, I definitely know which path I want us to go down. (And it’s clearly not the revolutionary path.)
Reform and revolution are incompatible because reform is about making the existing society better, and revolution is about tearing it apart to start all over again. Reform harms revolution by reducing the need for revolution, just like with the working class in the early to mid 20th century. This is why many true revolutionaries don’t really welcome the success of reformism. I actually think this explains the negativity of CRT thinkers towards the fruits of the civil rights movement. On the other hand, revolutionary politics harm reformism by creating a constant threat that the social fabric, and people’s familiar lives, are going to be pulled apart and turned upside down. This prospect is understandably unwelcome for many people, and will be met with a reactionary attitude, which will also lead to the widespread rejection of reform.
Indeed, reformism builds the broad public support required for change in democracies by promising to make everyone’s lives better. Revolutionary politics and rhetoric in the background makes our case less credible. The specific oppressor vs oppressed model used in various critical theories further creates the impression that social change will create winners and losers, by ‘turning the tables of oppression’. This, of course, further undermines the case for any change among the general public. This is why reform and revolution are always going to be at odds with each other. There is no denying this fact.
The trouble with the rise of CRT is that, since the paths of reform and revolution are inevitably in conflict in multiple ways, the popularization of an inherently revolutionary mode of thinking is going to distract from, and even harm, the prospect of further reform. Indeed, this is happening not just with race and CRT, it is also clearly happening with LGBT activism, which has generated a new wave of backlash that trans people like myself are very aware of. It’s what’s inspired me to speak up against this new wave of revolutionary politics. Because ultimately, it’s what’s best for people that matters, and what’s proven to help is sticking to the reformist path that has delivered evidence-based benefits.
In the next part, I will talk about why CRT and critical theory in general are inherently anti-liberal. I will also talk about how we, as reformists, liberals, and practical progressives, can develop a constructive approach towards critical theory, that allows us to stand our ground when it comes to key liberal values and principles, while still having space to acknowledge the potential academic value of CRT and other similar theories.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for Western democracies in the 21st century.