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Critical Theory

Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.


Critical Theory

Classic Marxism saw the working class as the means of change. Marxist theory is rooted in the idea that the working class has been taken advantage of and exploited by the owners of production. Looking at nature, they concluded that the only way to redistribute wealth and opportunity was by force. The Bolshevik Party in Russia called for the workers to revolt. This did not happen. Rather the Bolsheviks seized power in the name of the people. They thought that once the overthrow was successful in Russia that workers around the globe would be motivated to do the same and a world-wide revolution would occur. That did not happen.

One of the factors that Marxism did not account for was that people do not view themselves so much as an economic class but rather as a nation. Nationalism was stronger than the Marxist view of class warfare. Another issue that caused the failure of the Marxist world revolution is that the majority of people in capitalist countries did not see themselves as being exploited. While there were disparities in wealth, most people accepted theses as natural realities, did not see themselves as victims and were content to live and work as they were.

While Maoism was able to motivate some to revolt in the name of the exploited natives and simple agrarians against the colonialist capitalists and their cronies, Marxism made little inroads in the West. What was needed was an adjustment to the philosophy that would undermine the affluence and equality seen in Western, democratic and capitalist countries. People had to be “educated” that they were oppressed victims or else the revolution would never take place.


The Frankfort School

In 1923, Felix Wiil provided funding for the Institute for Social Research in Frankfort, Germany. The Institute was part of Goethe University and was created to promote Marxist studies. During the 1930s, the Frankfort School proposed a new idea that became known as Critical Theory (CT). CT is hard to define. Drawing from numerous sources and ideas, CT states that “logic is tied to content” and that there must be a confrontation of social, historical and ideological ideas and institutions.

Like Postmodernism, and much of the philosophy of the 20th century, the focus started in language and more specifically in literature.

So, practically what does this mean? Most social theories seek to understand society. CT starts with the intent to change society. Marxism concerns itself with power and domination. So, CT looks to identify power structures and dismantle them. Rather than using a working-class or an indigenous agrarian people, CT points to social structures that alienate, repress and disenchant members of society by denying them access to material goods and power.


Critical Theory Applied

CT was applied to many perceived people groups in a society. These groups were not identified by class, nationality, language or geography. Rather they are identified in contrast to groups that are perceived to have power and control. It is assumed, just like in classical Marxism, that any advantage by one group came at the cost of another group. Any privilege possessed by one group must have come through the exploitation or denial of another group. Hence, women are automatically and always oppressed by men (Critical Feminist Theory). Dark-skinned people have always been oppressed by light-skinned people (Critical Race Theory).

There has been an interesting development in the application of CT to sexuality. While the homosexual rights movement was vocal in the United States for some decades, now there is a new movement toward gender rights. The language is very intentional. CT uses the word “gender” rather than sex. It is said then that those who use scientific realities to define “sex” (e.g. male and female), must recognize and surrender privilege to those who believe that they are either some unique mix of male/female or that they are a gender that is not defined by “binary” terms.

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When the Nationalist Socialist Party came to power in Germany, Marxists from the Frankfort School came to the U.S. After the war, some returned to Germany and Europe, while others remained in the U.S. Most of them took prominent positions in universities. It was through the teachings of the universities and subsequent writings that CT came to have the influence that it has today.

Social Justice

The purpose of CT is to analyze the existing social and economic structures to determine the areas of oppression and disparity of people groups by those in power. It must be noted that CT sees no possibility of mutual benefit or symbiotic relationship. There is only the oppressed and oppressor. Once the analysis of CT has been made then the calculated wrongs must be set right. Social justice is the actions to level the playing field by the redistribution of goods, privileges, and power.

Marxism is a pragmatic philosophy in which the ends justifies the means. Marxism has historically aligned itself with any ally to advance the revolutionary cause and will seek to co-opt or take over any other movement to direct that movement to the Marxist end. SJ, in true Marxist fashion, has aligned itself with the Progressives in the U.S.[1] It is no coincidence that an open Socialist is vying for the Presidential candidacy for the Democratic Party in 2020.

Intersectionality and Victim Points

While feminism helped advance the cause of women, some would say that it did not address the experience of lesbians or women of color. CT identifies various levels of exploitation and oppression. CT analytics are applied to determine the extent of oppression based on the number of intersections a person meets. For example, a black, lesbian has more oppression than a gay, black man. They are both homosexuals and people with dark skin but the lesbian would receive one more “victim-point” because she is also a woman. This creates a serious problem. While the movement can build unity against any perceive hegemony, it cannot build any cohesion. The whole of the system can only divide and subdivide.

What we must keep in mind here, is that Marxism calls for social change “by any means necessary.” It is pragmatic. The ends justify the means. Truth is whatever forwards change. Falsehood is found where ever there is resistance to social change. This is what is meant by the phrase “logic is tied to content.” SJ is the means to unite as many people as possible to replace the existing power structures in the West with Neo-Marxism. The “disenfranchised” ones are the revolutionary force to remove the capitalists and put into power collectivists who will re-distribute wealth.


[1] Progressivism is the political philosophy that seeks to reform society, mostly through political means, to conform to Liberal ideals. Modern Liberalism broadly speaking, teach that the government has a strong role to play in curtailing capitalism. They have more government control and that the government is responsible to address social concerns. Modern Liberalism has come to be associated with the Democratic Party in the U.S.


Barry G Carpenter (author) from Mindanao, Philippines on February 14, 2020:

Thank you for reading and for the comment!

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on February 13, 2020:

Great overview of the entire thing. Easily read and easily digestible. Thanks for publishing this.

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