Craig Mason: Critical Race Theory should not be censored, but should be challenged as wrong-headed.
Dec. 22, 2021 Updated Wed., Dec. 22, 2021 at 6:41 p.m.
“Critical Race Theory” (CRT) is all over the media, but no one defines it clearly, and even pundits who rail against it admit they cannot define it. This essay traces the trajectory of thought leading to CRT from Marxists emphasizing economics, then politics, and, now, culture.
There were many, many forms of socialism in the 1800s and early 1900s, from love-your-neighbor Christian socialism to labor-union forms of socialism, to the 20th century “winner” of the Russian Revolution – that is Marxism, as interpreted by Lenin. The Soviet Revolution equated socialism with Marxism for our times.
In Marx’s original theory, you analyzed society by its economy, technology, and by the class conflicts around controlling property, technology and labor. Marx called this part of society the “mode of production.” The rest of society was “superstructure.”
For Marx, the rest of society merely reflected the Mode of Production. For Marxists, that is why we have a “free market” in marriage and religion, while feudal serf societies had an imposed single religion and had rigid family structures, etc. In short, for Marx, economics and technology determined the rest of society, including politics and culture.
Old-time Marxism was a powerful tool for analyzing society. There were many “right-wing Marxists” who denied that Marx’s ideal of socialism would ever arrive, but who used “mode of production” analysis. (Joseph Schumpeter, with his ideas of “creative destruction,” is one famous example.) In the 1990s, American corporate leaders were “right-wing Marxists” who told us that trade with China would democratize China, because as China became more “capitalist” in its mode of production, the rest of their society would develop a democratic superstructure.
In Old-time Economic Marxism, socialism would not be produced until capitalism created so much wealth that society could afford socialism, at which time corporate consolidation (the “trusts” of Marx’s day) would have already readied the economy for socialism as private corporate bureaucracy absorbed markets, turning thousands of small producers in a market into merely departments of mega-corporations with budgets. The revolution would just pinch off the top with public takeover of the “trusts.”
Lenin was not so patient. Prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin defined Old-Time Marxism as the “error of economism.” Lenin argued that the political system, led by a “Vanguard Party,” could grab the economy by the throat and drag a society quickly through historical stages toward socialism, using political violence. Violence was necessary because the “Vanguard” understood where to take society, while the masses were trapped in the culture of the old mode of production.
Following Lenin, Stalin forced peasants to become factory workers, transforming the Soviet economy at the point of a bayonet, and by the end of WWII Stalin had forced Russia through the Industrial Age in record time. Marxists who emphasized economics were replaced by “Political Marxists” (Leninists) who used secret police and prison camps to transform society through control of the productive properties and people of the society. Mao in China was a Political Marxist, and China remains a Leninist state, with political power dominating the economy.
During the Great Depression the “Cultural Marxists” – grandparents of CRT – were born. Marxists and Leninists were sure that this total failure of capitalist relations to organize production in the Great Depression would end the system. Miners wanted to mine, and steel-makers wanted to make steel, and people wanted steel, but markets had failed to connect them. America produced the New Deal, instead of revolution.
The 1930s developed three pathways out of the Great Depression: Stalinism, fascism and the social democracy (New Deal) of FDR. Ultimately, FDR’s version of regulated capitalism won the battle for the hearts and minds of most of the world. Leninists were bitterly disappointed that people preferred regulated capitalism to Soviet socialism. (Certainly, Mao’s success in 1947 was some comfort, but it was in another peasant, not industrialized, society.) Workers of the industrial world were united in preferring social democracy to Soviet socialism.
The Marxist-Leninists then decided that they were wrong to underestimate the power of “superstructure” (culture). Having first emphasized economics (Marx), then emphasizing politics (Lenin-Stalin-Mao), Marxism underwent the “cultural turn.” Western Marxists decided that the “culture of capitalism” was so strong that it stabilized capitalism despite the economic failures of the capitalist system.
Other than the dream of a socialist society, “Cultural Marxists” are not Marxists in any analytical sense of the word. Marx emphasized that your material existence (especially the work you did) shaped your thoughts. Cultural Marxists stand Marx on his head and say that ideas matter more than do physical circumstances.
By the 1980s, American radicals were committed to attacking the “cultural of capitalism.” Along with this “cultural turn,” the radicals advanced “post-modern” ideas that there was no empirical truth, but that everyone has their story. I was in graduate school at this time (before leaving for law school), and it was clear that the radicals were fleeing the accumulating “conservative” facts about the value of stable families, disciplined schools, and that crime is more about bad behavior than about bad social conditions. As we would see in the following decades, each looney radical in the universities would produce thousands or millions of looney reactions against the radicals out in the society. (Trump’s “alternate facts” are the logical outcome of the radical attack on factual truth, made angry and popular.)
As an example of radical action, pushed by nice people, affirmative action “sounds nice,” but the radicals pushed it not for social justice, but to “attack the idea of merit.” (I was in the room arguing against these plans as they were made.) Sociologists who study race relations recommended against affirmative action, because if scarce resources are doled out on the basis of race, it will heighten racial awareness and tension – this is a fact, not merely a hypothesis. Nonetheless, school-marm “liberals” supported affirmative action anyway, while the radicals giggled that they were throwing dynamite into the capitalist “meritocratic” system. Political correctness of the 1990s was a watered-down, pablum version of radical thought, spread by nice people as they unknowingly counter-radicalized the right wing in America.
We are now in another wave of political correctness — “wokeness” — as nice people again throw watered-down versions of far-left ideas. There is a kernel of truth in their critique of the system, but really “wokeness” is mostly radical dynamite that produces the counter-dynamite of the right-wing crazies. Both sets of radicals now want to blow the system apart, as they believe that some great liberation will come. They each seek enough chaos to break the current system.
Critical Race Theory is a baby sibling of the “cultural turn” in Marxism. It insists that racism is at the heart of our institutions, and that is simply not true.
Pre-revolutionary America had indentured white servants who were abused and held over their term of indenture. Blacks brought to America were originally also indentured servants, with the first official court case holding over a black into slavery occurring in Colonial Virginia in 1654. And many colonies did not finish “inventing slavery” until the 1730s (1750 in Georgia), and slavery developed out of indenture, combined with a labor shortage on the frontier that tempted men to hypocrisy and oppression.
By the time of the Revolution, many of the Founders were uneasy with slavery, but did not see how they could destroy all of the investment wealth (of slave purchases) by ending it, and they hoped slavery would die out on its own. It is true that the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788, had many compromises regarding slavery, but the economics of slavery had far more impact than did racism.
Cotton crop failures in India, combined with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (patented in 1794), had more to do with turning the American South into a slave region than did racism. Old-timey mode of production analysis applies – racism emerged to justify the economic system; racism did not create slavery.
There are good reasons to study racism, but few racisms have lives of their own. For example, Americans were anti-Japanese in WWII, and then promptly became great friends and allies for decades after WWII, and then Americans got anti-Japanese in the 1980s when their car industry was beating ours, and then in the 1990s we studied their economic system to learn from it as they had studied ours in 1900, and now we are back to friendly allies.
Critical Race Theory should not be censored, but it should be challenged as wrong-headed. CRT is advanced by school-marm “liberals” who are throwing watered-down versions of Cultural Marxist dynamite that only creates millions of right-wing crazies in reaction.
We all need to return to facts, and those facts will include hard truths about how the 1960s and 1970s undermined FDR’s New Deal state. Many forms of oppression that needed to be ended were ended (e.g., civil rights for blacks, women and gays are vital improvements), but too many necessary mechanisms of social order were thrown out, as well. That is a separate essay.
America is not fundamentally racist. CRT is a watered-down version of Cultural Marxism. Well-meaning intentions in spreading CRT ideas are creating more and more reactionary nut-jobs who threaten our democracy with fascism.
We need a universal commitment to the self-discipline of fact over the self-indulgences of ideology. Everyone needs to “wake up” to facts, and to realize that no form of fanatical commitment to right-wing or left-wing ideology looks “woke” to those of us committed to reality.
Craig Mason is a local attorney and Spokane native who has also taught at Columbia Basin Community College, WSU-Tri-Cities, EWU and Gonzaga.
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