The Elitist Pretence of Critical Theory

Written by: Dr Ponti Venter A movement has been growing within Marxism since the 1920s; and it has become known as ‘neo-Marxism.’ Neo-Marxism moved beyond Marx in the sense that its focus was ‘late capitalism’: the diffusion of ownership by shareholding; the role of managers,...

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Written by: Dr Ponti Venter

A movement has been growing within Marxism since the 1920s; and it has become known as ‘neo-Marxism.’

Neo-Marxism moved beyond Marx in the sense that its focus was ‘late capitalism’: the diffusion of ownership by shareholding; the role of managers, the self-integration of the working class into the semi-military economy; the all-round security search of the individual and the one-dimensionality of a life manipulated into sleepy obedience.

The traits it shared with traditional Marxism, as envisaged by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were:

  1.  The base-superstructure materialistic worldview: This states that the material relations in the base – that is, the relationships of power of the haves over the have nots – give form to the mental relationships of culture, ideology, art and science. It is a complete worldview dogma – the form of matter makes the form of mind.
  2. The dialectical method of Hegel: mind is the opposite of matter. If matter is the source of mind, then one needs Hegel’s dogma that opposites come from opposites – but you present it as a realistic method – it simply mirrors what happens in objective reality. With this method, they could simply divide the world into two groups: the oppressors and the victims; and, depending on the circumstances, one could shift the oppressors and the victims to suit one’s cause.
  3. The idea that a revolution is necessary: this assumes that some people are suffering and those in power will never relinquish any of their power without violence – again, a dogma, because in the US and in Europe since early in the 20th century, negotiated settlements became widespread.
  4. Elitism: Marx always maintained that the Communist International did not instigate any working class action. Instead, the workers supposedly acted on their own initiative. Initially, Marx believed in international workers’ unity, but towards the end of his life he had to admit that one needed national diversification. The neo-Marxists had to admit that, over time, the workers did not “see” their revolutionary mission – so what to do? Back to elite doctrinary leadership by the communist parties.

The neo-Marxists made the following elitist claims:

  1. They are the vanguards of the revolution against late capitalism.
  2. The majority of the Western working class have been happily included into the global late capitalist system.
  3. The people on the fringes – the students and in some Western countries, the blacks – are the possible new vanguards.
  4. They renamed themselves ‘Critical Theory’ – all those non-Marxist theories were establishment positivists of a dogmatic. By using the term ‘Critical’, they could distance themselves from Marxism’s history of violence.

The name ‘Critical Theory’ is itself a malicious, dogmatic misrepresentation of the idea of ‘theory’, especially of the term ‘critical’, and also a misrepresentation of analysis. My concern is with the apparent elitism of Critical Theory – the idea that it is the “only way” – and I desire seeing the proponents of Critical Theory be honest about the fact that they are Marxists. The dogma of Critical Theory is so hidden behind a veil of ‘method’, that many proponents do not realise that they think dialectically and that they use a kind of materialist dogma.

All decent philosophies – from the mythological philosophy of Hesiod over Xenophanes critique of mythology over Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – up to positivism and pragmatism have been critical. The issue is not if they have been critical; instead, it is the range of analysis that is important, and the criteria used. Materialist dogma, even in its dialectical format, is one-eyed and suffers from skewed proportions. Theory is to be in interaction with fact; skewed proportions cannot account for facts.

As a youth I was influenced by Marxism, and this article should not be seen as a crusade against Marxism, however, it irks me that these nuanceless and proportion-skewed Critical Theory explanations claim to be the only valid explanations. That proponents of Critical Theory are so denigrating and damning of disagreement that they would see academic departments cleansed of those who oppose their dogma, is perhaps even more concerning.

That which calls itself ‘Critical Theory’ is actually malproportioned analysis for the sake of targeting. It is, in fact, bad scholarship hiding behind great-sounding terminology.

Author: Dr Ponti Venter is a former professor of philosophy at Potchefstroom University and the University of Fort Hare.

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  1. v_3 Reply

    All dogma is rooted in a point in time. As Keynes said “when the facts change, I change my mind”.

    Old and new Marxists are stuck in a one-dimensional worldview. It’s only advantage, like that other faith-based religion, umm religion, is that it gives hope of a better future, perhaps in the after-life.

  2. germ Reply

    Isaiah Berlin once said that nothing has done more harm on earth than people or groups of people who believe that they have the sole possession of the Truth.

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