In mainstream media and social media, there is a public debate surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) mired in a slew of misconceptions about CRT including the misconception about the relationship between CRT and Marxism. The misconception is that CRT is a Marxist theory. This misconception is fairly common among many people on the right. There is a similar misconception among liberals and progressives that CRT and Marxism are more or less congruent with one another. In this essay, I wish to dispel both misconceptions. In particular, I argue that CRT is not a Marxist theory and that there tends to be an ideological as well as a theoretical tension (if not outright contradiction) between CRT and Marxism. It’s essential that I explain CRT before I explain why (1) CRT is not a Marxist theory and (2) there is a tension between CRT and Marxism. Explaining (1) and (2) will involve explaining Marxism, but since my general audience are likely to be Marxists it isn’t necessary for me to cover every basic thesis of Marxism.
What is CRT?
A majority of the people who debate about CRT in mainstream media and social media seem to be under the impression that CRT refers to a single theory about structural racism in the United States. However, this impression couldn’t be further from the truth about CRT; it’s a fundamental misunderstanding. This misunderstanding comes from an understandable source: the word “Critical Race Theory” is singular, so it seems that it refers to a single theory. However, the reality is that “Critical Race Theory” refers to a family of theories about structural racism in the United States. Like the word “Critical Race Theory,” the word “feminism” doesn’t refer to a specific feminist theory, but rather it refers to a family of feminist theories: liberal feminism, radical feminism, Marxist feminism, ecofeminism, and so on. Feminist theorists tend to disagree with one another because they endorse theories that conflict with one another. Similarly, “Critical Race Theory” refers to a family of theories that aren’t necessarily in harmony with one another. In this sense, it would be accurate to use the plural term “Critical Race Theories” as opposed to “Critical Race Theory.” (However, I’ll continue to use the term “CRT” as a shorthand to refer to a family of theories in the tradition that’s called Critical Race Theory).
While there are many different variants of CRTs as a family of theories, it’s convenient and fairly accurate to group CRTs into two schools of thought. According to Patrick Anderson, who wrote a three-part series explaining CRT based in part on the work by Richard Degaldo, there is the realist school of CRT (realism or realist) and the idealist school of CRT (idealism or idealist). Both schools of thought not only agree that structural racism exists in the United States, but aim to explain structural racism in the United States. However, realism and idealism use quite different explanations for how structural racism exists in the U.S. In this respect, realism and idealism are competing critical race theories. How do they differ exactly?
Let’s begin with realism since it was the original critical race theory that came before idealism. The realist version of CRT was developed by Derrick Bell who argued that structural racism is ultimately based on the political and economic interest of the white bourgeoisie to exploit black people in the United States under the capitalist political economy. Since the abolition of slavery and reconstruction, they manage to continue the exploitation of black people through a variety of means but one of the more recent methods is to integrate or assimilate both the black bourgeoisie and the black professional class (e.g. lawyers, doctors, academics, journalists, entertainers, and so on) into the capitalist political economy in order to use them to maintain control over the black working class. Hence, structural racism in the United States, which disproportionately affects the black working class compared to the black bourgeoisie and the black professional class, exists because it maintains class and racial dominance of the white bourgeoisie in a capitalist political economy. This view can be divided into two theses. The first is the materialist thesis, the thesis that interests the white bourgeoisie as well as economic factors related to their interest underpin structural racism. The second thesis is the neocolonial thesis of realism (or neocolonialism), the thesis that the white bourgeoisie controls the black masses by assimilating their bourgeoisie and professional class into the political system.
In order to understand the materialist thesis, it’s important to keep in mind that structural racism in the United States begins with slavery which came into existence through the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The white ruling class requires a cheap and large labor force to develop the plantation economy and it happens to be the case that the slave market in western Africa provides them what they need. This economic interest of the original white plantation owners played a significant role in the emergence of structural racism in the United States to maintain the political economy of slavery by oppressing slaves. While the white plantation slave owners no longer exist, their ideological successor, the white bourgeoisie, still finds structural racism indispensable to maintain the exploitation of the black working class.
So far the explanation seems at least semi-plausible, but one might object that the explanation is wrong because it doesn’t account for racial progress. Derrick Bell uses the above materialist framework to explain why racial progress exists. In particular, it was in the political and economic interest of the white bourgeoisie to allow for some racial progress while maintaining structural racism. For example, Bell argued that the real reason why the U.S. government abolished Jim Crow segregation is because its presence is obviously incongruent with the U.S. propaganda that America values democracy, equality, and liberty. During the Cold War socialist countries such as the USSR would use examples of Jim Crow segregation to humiliate the U.S. This was one of the key factors that contributed to the judicial decision to outlaw Jim Crow segregation (at least in schools) as unconstitutional. Since the white bourgeoisie saw socialist countries like the USSR as its mortal enemy, it had to prove that America is still a country that values freedom, equality, and democracy. Hence, racial progress only happened because it happens to coincide with the interest of the white ruling class. This kind of explanation Bell uses is an instance of his belief in what he calls racial fortuity: black people in the United States will occasionally experience racial progress only because their interest happens to coincide with the interest of the white ruling class.
Given that a white ruling class has consistently controlled and exploited black people in the United States since its inception, Bell concludes that there is no reason to believe that racism will ever end in the United States. Bell uses the following simple argument from induction: since we observe that racism has been a part of our social fabric since colonial America, it is extremely unlikely that it would be eradicated from America; racism is a permanent feature of our country. This thesis is what Bell calls realism (needless to say, this is why Bells’ version of CRT is simply called Realism). One very common objection people make against Bells’ realism is that it’s too pessimistic because it suggests we should stop struggling against structural racism. Bell responds that the problem isn’t with the struggle against structural racism, but it’s aim to eliminate structural racism altogether. The energy of the struggle should be channeled to alleviating and adapting to the challenges of structural racism.
So far I’ve explained Bell’s Realism, but what about idealism? What is idealism in CRT? In contrast to realism, idealism is the school of thought which says that what causes structural racism to exist and continue to exist isn’t ultimately the economic interest of the white bourgeoisie, but rather our psychological attitudes alongside with cultural artifacts such as symbols, language, texts, categories, and ideology from which our predominantly white society socially constructs races in order to subjugate and oppress people of color while elevating white people as the privileged and dominant group. While realism would appeal to economic interest (as well as other interests) of the white ruling class and economic factors to explain structural racism, idealism tends to appeal to our society’s collective social consciousness and its artifacts (e.g. literature, language, films, symbols, and so on) that ultimately give rise to and maintain structural racism in the United States. The result is a vicious feedback loop: our social consciousness, which consists of collective psychological racist attitudes, creates cultural artifacts that not only reflect racial prejudices, but also perpetuate racist attitudes. When cultural artifacts perpatuate racist attitudes, the racist attitudes in turn perpetuate and generate the same kind of cultural artifacts which in turn would perpetuate the same kind of racist attitudes. This vicious feedback loop doesn’t just occur in the vacuum, but in a society that includes institutions such as the criminal court system, mainstream media, entertainment, education, electoral system, and so on. An idealist solution to structural racism is to radically change our language, beliefs, attitudes, symbols, literature, and other cultural artifacts in order to overcome structural racism. According to Patrick Anderson, one person who exemplifies the idealist school of thought is Kimberele Crenshaw.
Anderson points out that the idealist school of thought has largely supplanted realism from academia. Anderson’s explanation is that realism was too radical insofar as it challenged the political economy of our society, capitalism, but idealism is conservative in comparison because it doesn’t directly and blatantly challenge the white ruling class and its political economy. Idealism identifies racist attitudes and prejudices, as opposed to the white ruling class in particular, as the root of structural racism. In this respect, idealism doesn’t challenge the status quo from a realist perspective. Naturally, universities and foundations would provide grants and other forms of funding to idealists more often than realists because an idealist version of CRT is congruent with the status quo.
It’s apparent that both realism and idealism are incompatible with one another. Realism identifies the political economy, in which the white ruling class reigns, as the material foundation for structural racism whereas idealism identifies the collective psychological attitudes of society (social consciousness) and cultural artifacts as the foundation of structural racism. The former believes that racism is ultimately rooted in exploitation because historically the white ruling class didn’t demonize and dehumanize black people until they need slave labor; the white ruling class used racism to justify and legitimize slave labor of black people and continued to use racism to justify and legitimize the super-exploitation of black people. The idealist believes that collective racist attitudes and beliefs of white people have always been responsible for the existence of structural racism since colonial America.
Why CRT isn’t Marxist
The division between realism and idealism seems to run in rough parallel with the division between Marx’s dialectical and historical materialism and German idealism. Marx believed that development in the mode of production is fundamental to development of society whereas idealists during Marx’s time believe that development in the realm of ideas (e.g. ideology, culture, literature, zeitgeist, and so on) lead to the development of society. Realism believes that racial progress depends largely on the political and economic interest of the white bourgeoisie whereas idealism tends to believe that racial progress depends on changing the social consciousness of society. From this parallel, it’s obvious that Marxism is incompatible with the idealist school of thought in CRT.
The idealist school of thought in CRT would identify the root of structural racism ultimately in society’s social consciousness (e.g. racist prejudices collectively held by a vast majority of people and their manifestation in our cultural artifacts), but a Marxist would point out that structural racism is an integral part of the superstructure that depends on the capitalist mode of production as its base. A superstructure consists of our political, legal, cultural, and ideological institutions that maintain and shape an economic system in which capitalists privately own productive forces (e.g. factories, agriculture, power plants, infrastructure, banks, and other businesses), workers sell their labor-power as a commodity to capitalists for wages, and the capitalists extract surplus value from the labor power of the working class. How does the superstructure maintain and shape the political economy of capitalism? It not only maintains the legality of private property, but enforces it by using state coercion. It uses education and mass media to indoctrinate the masses into believing that capitalism is “normal,” “natural,” ''legitimate,'' “fair,” ''meritocratic,” and possibly eternal.
How does structural racism fit into this picture? It’s part of our superstructure. It dehumanizes groups of the working class in order to create artificial division and false consciousness. What’s important to remember is that this superstructure which structural racism is a part of can’t exist without the underlying mode of production, capitalism, as its material base. Idealists believe that capitalism, while it may have played a role in the formation of structural racism in the past, is currently and largely orthogonal to structural racism. Structural racism exists because of the state of our social consciousness. Specifically, structural racism exists because of our collective racist attitudes, the cultural artifacts that perpetuate them, and the vicious feedback loop between our collective racist attitudes and cultural artifacts. These factors which constitute our social consciousness shape our institutions. However, Marxists believe that structural racism is an integral part of the superstructure that depends on the capitalist mode of production as its material basis. Without the capitalist mode of production, structural racism wouldn’t continue to exist.
So far it seems to be that idealism of CRT and Marxism are hopelessly incompatible, but what about realism and Marxism? On the face of it, it appears that realism and Marxism seem not only compatible, but quite congruent with one another. Both realism and Marxism place emphasis on the economic base as the material foundation of structural racism. Furthermore, many astute Marxists realize that the historically white ruling class often used the black bourgeoisie and black professional class to control the black working class. In this respect, it seems that Marxists would largely agree with Bell’s theses: materialism and neocolonialism.
While most Marxists would agree with Bell’s neocolonial thesis, they wouldn’t necessarily embrace Bell’s materialism. This may sound confusing to my readers since both Bell’s materialism and Marxism agree that our political economy is the material base for structural racism. However, their uncanny similarity is mostly on the surface. One crucial hint as to why Bell’s materialism is actually quite different from Marxism is due to Bell’s last thesis: realism. Bell argues that because we observe the existence of structural racism from colonial America to the present day, it’s extremely unlikely that we can eliminate structural racism. It would seem that structural racism is a permanent feature of America. Structural racism takes different shapes and forms depending on the historic condition, but it will nonetheless remain.
Bell’s realism indicates the true nature of his materialism. In particular, Bell’s materialism implicitly rejects the dialectical aspect of the materialism widely accepted by Marxists. This version of materialism is what Marxists call dialectical materialism. What is dialectical materialism? It states that all things undergo change due to their internal contradictions, to the fact that they are composed of a of unity of opposites. Every composite thing contains tendencies or forces that are in constant opposition to one another. This unity of opposites begins with initiating gradual and quantitative changes within each composite thing, but ends with a transformative and qualitative change of a composite thing. For instance, a heated water contains a unity of opposites between the tendency toward structural integrity and the tendency towards disintegration. This unity of opposites begins with a gradual change in which a water slowly loses structural integrity as a liquid until it becomes a boiling water. When a heated water becomes a boiling water, it reaches a point in which its underlying changes become a qualitative and transformative one: it loses structural integrity as a liquid and becomes a gas. Because of its unity of opposites, liquid water becomes its opposite: gas.
Marxists apply the above insight of dialectical materialism to all societies. Like every material composite thing, societies carry within themselves unity of opposites. There are many opposing forces within each society, but the primary opposing force in society is class struggle: the struggle between the exploiting class and the exploited class. This class struggle initially begins a quantitative change in each society, but towards the end it becomes a qualitative and transformative change of each society. In a feudal European society, there was class struggle between on one hand feudal landlords, monarchs, and the clergy (basically the feudal landowning classes) and on the other hand the peasants, craftsmen, and the nascent bourgeoisie. When class struggle reaches a certain height, the nascent bourgeoisie becomes a more mature bourgeoisie in which it privately owns industrial productive forces that render feudal productive forces obsolete. When the peasants become landless due to land enclosures, in which the landlords take land away from the peasants, the peasants become propertyless workers who seek jobs in the new industrial productive forces. They sell their labor power to the new capitalist class for wages in order to survive. They become wage-labourers or the proletariat. This quantitative change in feudalism becomes a qualitative change in which feudalism transforms into its opposite: capitalism.
Just as feudalism inadvertently create conditions of its own annihilation (e.g. land enclosure of the peasants which facilitates the development of nascent capitalists becoming new industrial capitalist and the development of landless peasants into proletariat), capitalism will create conditions of its own annihilation. Capitalism gives birth to something that will negate it. This is known as negation of negation. The overall message of dialectical materialism is that societies are always in constant motion and flux. Virtually nothing about society is permanent. While this insight is usually applied to the class structure of societies, it isn’t necessarily limited to it. The insight extends to anything that has its root in class exploitation. Since structural racism in the U.S. is historically emerges from exploitation, for instance slavery, structural racism is not immune from the fact that everything is in constant flux.
Since structural racism is part of the superstructure of the capitalist political economy that perpetuates the super-exploitation of people of color, and since capitalism will create conditions of its own annihilation, structural racism too will be annihilated by the conditions created by its capitalist political economy. A Marxist would understand that structural racism has at least two axes of unity of opposites. The first unity of opposites is between on one hand the white bourgeoisie, state agents (e.g. police), black bourgeoisie, and black professional class, and on the other hand working class black communities. The second unity of opposites is between the black working class and the white working class. The first unity of opposites is what I shall call the vertical contradiction because the white bourgeoisie are at the top whereas the black working class is at the bottom. The second unity of opposites is what I call the horizontal contradiction because both the black working class and white working class belong to the same class: the proletariat. I should add an important caveat to the thesis of horizontal contradiction. This horizontal contradiction isn’t perfectly horizontal but rather it is slightly tilted in favor of the white proletariat insofar as the white proletariat class has some unearned average social advantages and the black proletariat class has some unearned average social disadvantages.
The vertical contradiction is essentially the primary and antagonistic contradiction whereas the horizontal contradiction is secondary and non-antagonistic contradiction (see Mao’s essay “On Contradiction” on the distinction between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradiction). What does this mean? It means the vertical contradiction is a zero-sum game in which one side necessarily benefits at the expense of another whereas the horizontal contradiction is not a zero-sum game: one side does benefit, but this benefit isn’t inextricably tied to the disadvantage of the other side. How so? Because the white bourgeoisie, alongside with its agents such as the black bourgeoisie and black professional class, extract surplus value created by the labor of the black working class. It extracts surplus value through uneven development or underdevelopment of black working communities. With regards to horizontal contradiction, the white working class enjoyed temporary economic privileges from the post-war period (from the new deal to Reaganomics), but these temporary economic privileges are slowly waning since the rise of neoliberalism. While the white working class retains some social and economic privileges, it remains the case that their labor power is commodified and exploited by capitalism. This is also the case with the black working class but worse since they don’t have those same social and economic privileges as the white proletariat. In this respect, the contradiction between the white working class and the black working class, while it certainly exists, isn’t antagonistic or irreconcilable.
The only way to guarantee the resolution of the horizontal contradiction between the white and black working-class communities is to resolve the vertical contradiction between the white bourgeoisie and the black working class. How would resolving the vertical contradiction lead to the resolution of the horizontal contradiction? Recall that I said the horizontal contradiction is a secondary contradiction. It’s secondary because it depends on the existence of the vertical contradiction. The horizontal contradiction is largely an artifact of the vertical contradiction. How exactly does one resolve the vertical contradiction? By overthrowing capitalism. But this requires class solidarity between black working-class communities, white working-class communities, brown working-class communities, asian working-class communities, and other working-class communities. This class solidarity is something that can be realistically realized because working class communities of different races are being exploited (though not equally) by the white bourgeoisie. This is the view that I think a majority of Marxists would agree with. However, this isn’t necessarily the view that a majority of realists of CRT would agree with. Why? Realism rejects that structural racism can be eliminated through class solidarity because the contradiction between white working class and black working class is an antagonistic contradiction (or very close to being one).
There are three reasons why realists reject that class solidarity can overcome structural racism. First, there has never been a genuine and lasting transracial class solidarity between white working-class communities and other non-white working-class communities (see Peter Hossler’s chapter “False Consciousness” in the book Encyclopedia of Critical Whiteness Studies in Education). Second, there is ample evidence that white working-class communities oppressing other non-white working-class communities is a recurring pattern of American history (Hossler, 2020). Third, many members of the white working class do benefit at the expense of black people in the black working-class communities.
A Marxist would respond to each point as follows. First, in the past, there has existed transracial class solidarity, but they don’t necessarily last long enough because the white bourgeoisie would always use racism to destroy it through a series of methods pertaining to false consciousness. The white bourgeoisie would extend faux privileges, make false promises, and so on to give white members of the working class a false sense of superiority. Second, the fact that members of the white working-class communities oppress members of the black working-class communities doesn’t contradict Marxism. Karl Marx, for instance, observed the discrimination the Irish working-class face from the English working class. He observed that this discrimination is largely an artifact of the propaganda machine of British imperialism to create tensions between both working-class groups so that the British aristocracy and capitalists can maintain their private property holdings in Ireland. A similar logic can apply to what is happening in the United States. The bourgeoisie of the United States can ultimately own private properties in black communities by using its propaganda machine to create tensions between black working-class communities and white working-class communities. With regards to the third point, it is true that there are many members of the white working class who do benefit under capitalism. They are more likely to successfully sell their labor power in the market than their black counterparts. But in the grand scheme of things, these benefits are ultimately minuscule and temporary compared to the real benefits experienced by the white bourgeoisie.
A realist may disagree with the above rebuttals, and I could try to anticipate their response to my rebuttals, but this is beyond the scope of my essay. The purpose of going over this hypothetical exchange (which is based on reality) is that there is a disagreement between a realist of CRT and a Marxist. Moreover, this disagreement shows that the relationship between realism (CRT) and Marxism is complicated and tense. In effect, it’s apparent that CRT isn’t a Marxist theory. Bell’s materialism renders structural racism in the United States (and possibly other countries) exceptional to the laws of dialectical materialism. It may accept that most things undergo constant flux, but structural racism will prove to be too resilient to change. Marxists who are dialectical materialists believe that structural racism, like private property, will eventually be abolished when the underlying mode of production, capitalism, becomes too obsolete and dysfunctional for the entire working class. In this respect, Marxism is essentially an optimistic worldview whereas CRT (in particular its realist school of thought) is pessimistic.
I’ve shown that CRT isn’t Marxism because both of CRT’s schools of thought, realism and idealism, aren’t compatible with Marxism. CRT tends to be pessimistic about the prospect of transracial class solidarity between black and white working-class communities because of the history of racism in the U.S., but Marxism tends to understand that transracial class solidarity is artificially paused in its premature and nascent stage by the white bourgeoisie through a variety of methods pertaining to false consciousness and the instruments of structural racism.
Marxists who are serious about building socialism in America must build a transracial class solidarity across working-class communities of different colors. While they should acknowledge unearned social and economic inequalities among working class communities, they should reject that the relationship among them is an antagonistic and irreconcilable contradiction. Anyone who accepts that there is an antagonistic and irreconcilable contradiction among working class communities is not serious about building socialism in America. They are merely pessimists who reject one of the fundamental findings of dialectical materialism: societies undergo constant flux. They are unwitting and inadvertent ideological agents of the bourgeoisie who maintain the artificial racial division among the working class, an artifact of a bourgeois ideology. They merely reproduce bourgeois pessimism that has been reproduced for generations to maintain this exploitative political economy. Being pessimistic costs us the opportunity to build socialism, but, accepting the dialectical view of Marxism in the form of renewed American optimism might reward us socialism in America. Workers and oppressed people of America have nothing to lose but their chains. Workers and oppressed people of America, unite!
1. Anderson, Patrick. “The conspicuous absence of Derrick Bell—rethinking the CRT debate, Part 1.” Black Agenda Report (July 23, 2021).
2. Anderson, Patrick. “Realism, idealism, and the deradicalization of Critical Race Theory—Rethinking The CRT Debate, Part 2.” Black Agenda Report (September 1, 2021).
3. Cornforth, Maurice. Materialism and the Dialectical Method. New York: International Publishers, 1968.
4. Hossler, Peter. “False Consciousness.” In Encyclopedia of Critical Whiteness Studies in Education. Leiden: Brill Publishers, December 7, 2020.
5. Marx, Karl. “Outline of a Report on the Irish Question to the Communist Educational Association of German Workers in London.” in Marx and Engels on Ireland. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971.
6. Zedong, Mao. “On Contradiction.” August 1937.
Paul So is a graduate student who studies philosophy in a PhD program at University of California Santa Barbara. While Paul’s research interests mostly lie within the tradition of Analytic Philosophy (e.g. Philosophy of Mind and Meta-Ethics), he recently developed a strong passion in Marxism as his newfound research interest. He is particularly interested in dialectical materialism, historical materialism, and imperialism.