Thursday , June 20 2024

A Critical Theory of the Right

Critical Theory is the domain of the Marxist Left, or at least, it has been for the past eighty years. Horkheimer, writing in 1937, characterised Critical Theory as a contrasting academic approach to Traditional Theory: the latter sought only to understand or explain the societal interactions, composition, customs, laws and other distinctions present within nations, whereas for the neo-Marxist academics of the Frankfurt School who adhered to the former, the desire was to change these things, not merely present them. Change, however, was fundamentally linked to critique. Critique was to involve a systematic philosophical approach to the entirely of society as it stood in the particular moment; critique could manifest itself polemically, through attacks upon the characteristics described above, or by the dialectic, deconstructing the values and morality of society piece by piece, until all that remained was a “scientific” proof of the nihilistic foundations of human nature. Such is the intellectual inheritance of the modern academy, and its implications in our own time are widespread.

The art of critique involves, at least according to the Kantian model, the establishment of a method by which to judge all knowledge. We might well call it the process by which epistemic conclusions can be drawn, and thus by extension, the method by which we may project conclusions and make suggestions regarding the future based upon our knowledge. As we have established, Critical Theory takes the impetus with the latter, whereas traditional Kantian critiques tended to lean on the former. What all forms of philosophical critique agree upon is this concept: that in order to properly appreciate knowledge, we must begin all attempts at enquiry from first principles. Descartes represents this in a somewhat primitive but no less striking example given in the first Meditation of Meditations on First Philosophy, where he opts to begin his enquiry from the position of a radical sceptic, shaving off all preconceptions about what he thought he knew, his senses, and previous mental experience, in order to try and perceive what was fundamentally there at the beginning of all extra-sensory perception. His conclusion was that, no matter what evidence he rejected, he could not separate himself from the clear idea that he existed. Hence, the famous aphorism cogito, ergo sum.

Yet Descartes view is not sufficient enough for all. Indeed, for certain Critical Theorists it could never be. The sociologists and philosophers of the Frankfurt School believed that the spirit of Marx was fundamentally linked to the role of the critical academic: the rejector of “ideology”, of blind belief more generally. Here, placed before them in the 1930s, was a traditional society based upon precepts which were deeply ingrained within the Western psyche. It followed for the Critical Theorists that, if anything was deeply ingrained, then it most likely did not deserve to be. Ingrained principle after all is often the sign of stubborn resistance to change, and the theories of orthodox Marxism in the century before had proven to be largely ineffective. The working classes did not become “conscious” of their situation, and the dictatorship of the proletariat seemed little more than a dream. Indeed, the working class in countries such as Britain and Germany were too attached to tradition; socialist by economic temperament perhaps, but socially conservative and protective of the way of life which they had become comfortable with. The revolutionary premonitions of Marx and Engels, therefore, necessitated rejection in favour of a more practicable form of social reconstruction, albeit based upon the a priori considerations which Marx had established.

From critical first principles, however, come the rejection of everything, even one’s own self. Here is the trap of the philosophy of those whom I shall call the classical Critical Theorists. What began in the Dialectic of Enlightenment[1] as a response to a perceived suppression of true “liberation” by capitalist society, morphed into a culture of a clear and distinct opposition to all forms of knowledge. Tradition was seen to be an artificial creation of “capitalism” (in Critical Theory an abstract and objectified term with very little meaning besides its status as the arch-bugbear) with no real grounding in history, and as such, no real grounding in human society. If such a claim were true, then its implications would have been destructive. Whether one considers the claim to be true or not, however, is irrelevant. This was the foundation for all future critique of capitalist society, and the results were as revolutionary as one would expect. If societal tradition had no true basis, then many of the moral tenets which the majority of people living in the early-to-middle 20th century West were groundless. Society itself was nothing more than an empty shell of human social interaction the values of which tossed and turned with the wind. The Critical Theorists carried this worldview forward into the most radical movement for social change ever seen in the history of mankind.

Indeed, today, more societal change has been seen in the space of fifty years than in one hundred of the pre-Critical paradigm. The true “liberation” of society which the Critical Theorists desired has come from the liberation of people from tradition. Through countless dialectical theses, positive and empirical knowledge, the foundation of the Western scientific method, was dismissed in favour of a priori abstractions. “Liberty”, “equality”, and “justice”, words which are themselves meaningless without elaboration, became the cornerstones of the new method, each of which abstraction became semantically definable only in terms of the aims and actions of those who wishes to deconstruct the framework of tradition. Semantic redefinition involves the intoleration of alternative definitions. Hence:

Traditionalist: Equality must be defined in terms of its purpose; e.g. equality before the law.

Critical Theorist: How could you say that! Equality is a concept for all. It must be applied universally in order to level the oppressor with the oppressed. The equality of all is the only only desirable outcome.

Who knows what the “equality of all” entails? But the traditionalist is not permitted to be selective or precise in terms of his definition; such a practice undermines the power of the abstraction. Hence: Critical Theory relies upon political correctness, and the relativism of terms. We cannot know what “equality” is, we can only know that it is desirable. Thus, if someone previously not granted total freedom, for instance, someone who believes that they are a woman when they were born a man, wishes to be recognised, then classical Critical Theory dictates that he must be recognised as a woman. This will increase his equality relative to the oppressive force which prevented his identification. By contrast, the opponent to transgender recognition is not permitted the moral right to oppose: he wishes to reserve equality on the grounds that equality for all and in all senses might be damaging to tradition. This is a threat to the Critical method.

From this method proceeds the politics of progressivism: the politics of abstraction. From such levelling which arises from the deconstruction of tradition, institutions which uphold tradition are not safe from the critique. Marriage, gender roles, religion, etc. are not safe. The consequences of dispensing with these institutions increases the equality of the individuals involved in the sense of their no longer being tied to the institutions in question, but their autonomy becomes directionless. Society as a whole, being the aggregate of individual autonomy, therefore, also becomes directionless. As Burke offered in his defence,[2] a society without traditional institutions is rendered like a sailor piloting his ship without a compass under a dark sky. He has no way of knowing where to steer.

The destructive tendencies of progressivism could be written about until the ends of the Earth. That is not my full purpose here. My purpose is to suggest something new. For the most part, the goals of Critical Theory have been achieved. Whilst contemporary Marxists still attempt to utilitse academic means and the manipulation of political ends in order to suppress the last remaining vestiges of traditionalism which have not yet been silenced, the political structures which suppress expressions of traditionalism have for the most part become established, established so deeply in fact that it is widely considered to be a mark of moderate political liberalism to seek to preserve such structures. A progressive society which owes its repulsion to tradition in the spirit of Critical Theory may be considered a fait accompli.

So what of the Right? By “the Right” I mean the body of individuals who represent any form traditionalism. Why, they are in the same position as the Frankfurt School was in the ’30s. They face a society which is built of power structures, power structures which oppose them, and which utilise an epistemological method which remain completely antithetical to the values of the Right. The Right is therefore faced with three options: to crawl into the darkness, to attempt to express itself, or to work towards its own methods of subverting the Leftist order which has been established.

The Hegelian dialectic is the foundation of the Marxist method. However, before Marx, there was a (now long-dead) tradition of the Hegelian Right. Following from Hegel’s recognition of the power of institutions[3] the Right Hegelians upheld conservative principles which reinforced the value of traditions: the opposite of what we have described above. Thus, we can use this dead tradition to our advantage. We must build a Critical Theory of the Right.

This Critical Theory will not be like classical the theory. It will be unorthodox, but owe its legacy to profound orthodoxies. It will not tolerate any form of Leftist newspeak, abstraction, or any form of deconstructionist language. It will offer a new model of social interactions, of the power of certain structures, of class, of race, of religion, of law, and so on. It shall flip classical theory on its head. This is my purpose here. Marxism is, despite its pretensions to being a new scientific method, one of the most ideological forces the world has ever known. As such, this shall be the Dissenting Ideology, a father of the new opposition, receiving and reworking the totality of sociological and philosophical fields of enquiry.

This, it seems to me, is the Right’s only hope. Following in the footsteps of the classical Marxists and Critical Theorists, I shall aim to present my method clearly and coherently. God help me, in case any good may come of it. That, then, is the horror and hope of Critical Theory, as well as the reasons why I have dared to undertake the task of reinventing it for the sake of a world which desperately requires an intellectual force which pushes back against the newly established orthodoxies of the past few decades.

[1] see M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, J. Cumming (trans.), The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Verso, 2016)

[2] E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Penguin, 2003)

[3] As detailed in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

This post was originally published by the author on his personal blog:

About Alex Illingworth

Alex Illingworth lives in Oxford where he pursues studies in philosophy and theology, having previously studied Classics. He has written extensively on conservatism, and on British politics, and is a co-founder of the conservative blog aimed at students: The Burkean. His debut book in political philosophy "Political Justice" is a forthcoming publication with Arktos Media.

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