Part 1: Ideas Have Consequences: The Roots Behind Critical Race Theory

It’s a popular mantra for many social justice advocates to say “speech is violent”. However, a more accurate rendering of that sentiment is “ideas have consequences”, as in the case of the ideology that paved the way for Critical Theory, Critical Legal Theory, and eventually, Critical Race Theory.

When the word “critical” is in front of the word theory, it is used to explain a critique, an assessment, while at the same time, offer some kind of reflective direction. It’s akin to the idea of literary criticism, which has been around since man has put pen to paper. The basic concept of literary criticism is to formally debate and critique literature from various views based on time period, morality, structure/form, or what the writer could be saying about humanity, society, politics, religion, gender, or sexuality, to name just a few directions a critique can take.

Critical theory has the same concept, however, instead of critiquing literature, the critique is directed at society, culture and how humanity interacts with itself. Since the Age of Enlightenment, philosophers and intellectuals believed that in order to change society, it was best achieved by men engaging in argument, criticism, and debate 1. It was during this period that Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) penned the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1749) which argued that inequality and private property were responsible for progressive societal corruption 2.

History continues to show us that philosophers and societal critics attempt to analyze society with ideas void of a Biblical framework. Their analysis typically ignores the origin of sin, the Fall, and God’s subsequent curse on creation and are applied as a form of reflective direction in an attempt to heal what is wrong with society. Their solutions often include turning on one another out of envy, shame, guilt, or anger, while creating further strife and division between the haves and the have not’s. For millennia man has been attempting to diagnose the ills of society (sociology) and the harm we do to each other, without a Biblical grid, by looking to change man’s behavior, his thinking (cognitive) and his social interactions, consistently using psychological terms philosophically.

Due to Critical Race Theory, there is now much attention being focused at a formal Critical Theory that emerged out of the Frankfurt School in Germany in 1923. However, it’s important to know that ever since the Age of Enlightenment (1715-1789), also known as the Age of Reason, societal critiques of the past continue to feed the critiques of the present, meaning critical theory did not start in Frankfurt. For example, in 1891, John Dewey, an American philosopher and psychologist who was a committed Hegelian,3 (which will be explained later), published his Critical Theory of Ethics exploring, or rather critiquing, the idea of ethics, not through a Biblical lens, but from an academic and societal perspective that leaned heavily on social reform.

Dewey explored the issue of ethics through morality and conduct, specifically how ethics are asserted in motives, feelings or disposition. He looked at the consequences of an act and the character of the one behaving a certain way and how a person conducts himself to the watching world, in essence, he was using psychological terms philosophically to explain ethics.

Interestingly, he wrote that a man’s ability to do good comes from within, or in his words, “is the law of man’s being, self-imposed”. He writes “autonomy is the only escape from the theory of obligation which would make obligation external, and regard slavish fear or servile hope of reward. To regard even a Divine Being as the author of obligation is to make it a form of external constraint, appealing only to hope or fear, unless this Divine Being is shown to be organically connected with self4

What Dewey failed to understand is that for those who are in Christ believers have a filial 5 fear of God and a hope of reward not based on imperfect acts of service, but on God’s promises, without fear or condemnation (2 Peter 1:4; 2 Cor. 1:20; John 14:1; Rom. 8:39).

Furthermore, the Divine Being that Dewey is referring to is more than connected to the self, rather, through the Holy Spirit God dwells in all believers (1 Cor: 19-20). The significance of God’s Spirit residing in His people, fully understood, is where the motivation for true ethics come from. God does not call us to “obligations” out of servile fear, but obedience originating out of humility, gratitude, a servant’s heart and a Godly fear that flows out of a heart transformed by God.

Dewey wrongly believed that individuals are inherently good and seemed to insinuate negative connotations on man’s need for an external source to change one’s nature. According to Dewey, individuals become “good” by seeking an ethical reality in social interactions, which he believes can “redeem the world”. He had a low view of, or rather a secularized view of Christianity and asserted that if an individual identifies himself not with Christ, but a “spirit of ethics”, he can free himself from being a slave to his past and the evil he committed in his past. He wrote, “engaging in an isolated struggle to become good by himself” was not as beneficial as “recognizing and taking for his own the evil of the world”. 6.

In 1898, seven years after Dewey wrote his Critical Theory of Ethics, Felix Jose Weil, the founder of the Frankfurt School in Germany, is born in Argentina to Hermann and Rosa Weil. Weil’s father was among the million European Italians, Spaniards and Jews who poured into Argentina between 1880 and 1900 as immigrants. He was both Jewish and German and after arriving in Argentina in 1890 he became the largest global trader of grain. This meant that Weil was born into a family of wealth. This is important because many past and present philosophers, theorists, sociologists, and other’s who vocationally examine society through specifically Marxist ideals, often come from wealth or have had some form of “privileged” education.

Young Weil was sent to Germany at the age of nine and was in Frankfurt for most of his lower and upper education, even through the four years of World War I. Like many wealthy children of his day, elite education often replaces consistent daily parental guidance and interaction. While Weil was being educated in the prestigious halls of elite German academy, German born boys, aged 17 and on, were obligated to fight in the war. In 1918, right after Weil’s 20th birthday, the German monarchy collapsed, leaving Germany decimated by the effects of war, which included disease and malnutrition due to food shortages. It was during this time that Weil was becoming revolutionary politicized into socialist ideology 7. He became an active participant in the Workers and Soldiers Council in Frankfurt, which was affiliated with some aspect of the Social Democratic party. He grew disgruntled with pursuing socialists interests in Frankfurt due to the lack of socialism courses at his university, which motivated him to move to Tübingen to study political economy and socialism 8 in February of 1919. By March he started a socialist group for students.

Weil wrote “In Frankfurt I was still close to the Social Democratic Party, but studying Marx in greater depth in Tübingen and the discussions I had….radicalized me.9.

In October of 1919, Weil, with fourteen other students, were arrested for harassing a professor who they believed to be a “chauvinistic nationalist”. A protest led by a local independent socialist group (USPD) and The Communist Party of Germany (KPD), secured their release 10. However, because Weil was not born in Germany, they exiled him from Tübingen, forcing him back to Frankfurt. This is when he met Max Horkheimer (who will be covered in the next post) and some other Marxist advocates who were known for defending Marxist ideology. A strong Marxism-like-minded friendship grew between Weil and Horkheimer, to the point that Weil used some of his wealth to build a spacious home for himself and Horkheimer, as some sort of socialist hub, in a wealthy suburb northwest of Frankfurt 11.

In April of 1920, Weil finished his dissertation and submitted it to his liberal political science professor who opposed socialism. It was only accepted because Weil translated it into Aesopian, which according to the professor showed “scholarly merits”. Weil’s manuscript was aptly titled Socialization: An Attempt at a Conceptual Foundation, with a Critique of the Plans for Socialization 12, where he explored the practical problems of implementing socialism 13.

At the age of twenty three, Weil took his new wife to Argentina in the fall of 1921. He had made a promise to his sick father that once the dissertation was complete, he would help with the family grain business 14. During the course of the year that he was in Argentina, he was witness to what he claimed were various “unethical and exploitative practices” that allowed his father’s business to be successful. A few months after arriving in Argentina, in the cold of December of 1921, one such “incident” transpired with the Soviet Union.

There were rumors that the Soviet Union was experiencing a grain shortage. To avert the deaths of millions of people, Weil “wanted to make them a just offer for grain, rather than taking advantage of their desperation like other Western companies were doing“.

Weil met a representative from the Bolshevik party to discuss a grain sale. The Bolsheviks were one of two organizational entities that split after the rise of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1898. The Mensheviks wanted a larger democratic base method of governing while the Bolsheviks, followers of Vladimir Lenin, sought a more Communist-revolutionary style of governing. Interestingly, Lenin also came from a prosperous middle class family but embraced revolutionary socialist ideology after his brother was executed.

Revolutionary socialists believe that society needs a revolution in order for change to occur, evident in their practice of stirring up protests, though they claim their goal is not to necessarily seek violence 15. They claim to seek to gain political power by putting “power” back in the hands of the lower or working class of society. This can only be accomplished when masses of people are taught to believe that a nation is better off using collective power, instead of capitalist power. There has to be a mass cognitive shift for this to work out. This is why revolutionary socialists utilize extenuating societal circumstances to introduce cognitive shifts. The population has to be vulnerable, hungry, fearful, or in the case of Russia, decimated after a war, in order for this shift to occur. The problem with this political framework is that the working class or lower classes never gain that power, but rather, power is merely shifted to other leaders, who claim to speak “for the people”, but in reality, they become the bourgeoisie they profess to abhor.

In 1917, during WWI, the small Bolshevik group seized power, Communism was established, ending Russia’s involvement in the world war 16, though not necessarily ending civil war within Russia. This new Communist government took control of most of the farming production, all industry, all factories, set up a governmental secret police, all in an effort to control all aspects of life in the name of ‘helping the country’. Rival factions rose up, but were defeated. Russia was a disaster.

In order to ease some of that disaster, Lenin implemented the New Economic Policy in 1921 allowing some businesses and farms to keep some goods for profit 17. This may have contributed to the Bolshevik representative declining Weil’s grain, even though Russia desperately needed it as they were experiencing a famine that began in April of 1921 and lasted until early Spring of 1922, killing approximately five million people.

After Weil’s grain was declined, he later stated that he was “relieved that the threat of starvation had been averted18. He believed the Bolshevik representative at face value and instead of having the full truth of the real starvation occurring in Russia, he used this incident to condemn capitalism after Weil failed to inform his father’s company headquarters of Russia’s decision. Instead of being critical of Russia’s failure to feed the people, he blamed the concept of capitalism. Weil’s could have found another buyer for the grain but instead he criticized the business for wanting to “dump their grain and make hundreds of thousands of dollars“. Weil’s father relinquished him from the responsibility of taking over the family business and exactly one year later, Weil was back in Frankfurt, living his privileged life, while he continued to formally, intellectually, and politically condemn the very means that allowed for his life of comfort.

In 1923, Felix used some of his own inheritance from both parents and organized a week-long conference, the First Marxist Work Week, with the hopes of connecting other Marxist intellectuals. The main purpose was a “hope that the different trends in Marxism, if afforded an opportunity of talking it out together, could arrive at a ‘true’ or ‘pure Marxism19. They used this conference to also discuss Karl Korsch’s unpublished work, “Marxism and Philosophy“. 20.

It is is clear Weil wanted to believe a “true” or “pure” Western version of Marxism could be different from Lenin’s Marxism 21 or Maoists Marxism. Regardless of which version of Marxism is at play (Western, Russian or Chinese), they all share the same unspoken reinforcing premise, which is a presumptuousness of the intellectually privileged seeking to speak for the lower/working classes of society by means of perpetuating division and introducing mass cognitive shifts, under the guise of “help” via a faux empowerment of the people.

Weil’s First Work Week conference was more like an informal gathering of mostly German Jewish intellectuals and its success was the motivation they needed to establish themselves in a building and fund salaries for themselves. 22. With the help and support of Weil’s friend, Freidrich Pollack, along with the money from Weil’s inheritance, he established the Frankfurt School in 1923, formally known as the Institute for Social Research. Pollack was also the son of a Jewish businessman and was trained and set to enter a commercial career, however, he lost interest in that career path after the war. He began studying economics and politics, earning a doctorate after writing a dissertation on Marx’s monetary theory 23.

Personal side note: Some may wonder why the history and education of these individuals are necessary to understand today’s Critical Race Theory. In order to understand that “ideas have consequences”, it’s helpful to know the people behind the ideas. In every clinical counseling class that examines the various secular counseling theories for my masters and doctoral programs, there was an in depth study on the person(s) behind the various psychology theories of therapy. We studied Sigmund Freud for Psychoanalysis, Albert Adler for Individual Psychology, Carl Jung and other Neo Freudian’s for Analytical Psychology, Aaron Beck for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Victor Frankl and others for Existential therapy, Carl Rogers for Person Centered Therapy, etc, to name just a few.

Likewise, we will study the founders of the Frankfurt School where Western Critical Theory formally emerged. This brief history will equip faithful brothers and sisters of the Christian faith to respond appropriately when others minimize Marxism’s roots in today’s Critical Race Theory.

Next post will cover Max Horkheimer and the founding of the school.

  1. Spencer, Lloyd;Krauze, Andrzej. (2006). Introducing The Enlightenment. Totem Books.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Rockewell, Russell. (2018). Hegel, Marx, and the Necessity and Freedom Dialectic. Palgrave Macmillan
  4. Dewey, John. (1891) Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics. Register Publishing Company.
  5. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/qas/throughout-bible-we-are-told-fear-god-what-does-me/
  6. Ibid.
  7. Abromeit, John. Max Horkheimer and the Founders of the Frankfurt School. Cambrige University Press, 2011
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Wiggershaus, R. (1995). The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. MIT Press.
  13. Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. University of California Press. 1973
  14. Ibid.
  15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutionary_socialism
  16. Lotempio, April. Journey to the Eastern Hemisphere. Avyx Inc. 2016.
  17. Glaza, H. M. (2009). “Lenin’s New Economic Policy: What it was and how it Changed the Soviet Union.” Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 1(11). Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=1670
  18. Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. University of California Press. 1973
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Anderson, K. (1992). Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism: From the 1920s to 1953. Studies in Soviet Thought, 44(2), 79-129. Retrieved December 2, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20099461
  22. https://www.marxists.org/subject/frankfurt-school/
  23. Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. University of California Press. 1973

3 thoughts on “Part 1: Ideas Have Consequences: The Roots Behind Critical Race Theory

  1. I’m learning so much. Thanks for your writings. It’s obvious that you are following the Lord and sharing what you are learning with us.

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