Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt


His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. ~Walter Benjamin on Angelus Novus (1920)

Note: In this series, I address Critical Theory proper. For an introduction to Critical Race Theory, please see “In Short, What is Critical Race Theory?,” “What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading),”or the series beginning here: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the ‘Traditional Civil Rights Discourse’.”

Introduction to Part 1

I have been asked multiple times for my thoughts on Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer’s article, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.” In short, I believe it is a well written article and I am genuinely appreciative of the work they are doing. But what has brought me some discomfort throughout their project is the sense that they are offering a characterization of Critical Theory, rather than a faithful explanation or definition; maybe even a caricature? In particular, treating the identification of “oppressor” and “oppressed” as the definitive core, or premise, of Critical Theory seems more a collocation of a common theme pulled from disparate quotes than that which has (and does) distinguish Critical Theory from its “traditional” competitors. (Edit: For further critique of Neil Shenvi’s faulty characterizations, please see: “Critical Theory, Dr. Levinson, Dr. Shenvi, and Evangelicalism: Final Thoughts.”)

For one, Critical Theory was self-consciously developed as a response to “Traditional Theory,” i.e., dogmatic materialism, empiricism, positivism, idealism, and Enlightenment thought in general. But it is these latter systems of thought that historically introduced the questions of human freedom, the critique of subjugation, and the oppressor/oppressed paradigm into moral and political philosophy. To be clear, Marxism and Critical Theory did not invent the categories, nor the historical conundrum of exploitation, but rather sought to answer the “why?” and “how?” and provide the escape that Enlightenment thought was historically unable to provide. Further (and we will discuss this in detail later), the narrative of “oppressor” and “oppressed” is an explicit Biblical theme running through the whole of the Scriptures as well—the whole history of fallen humanity, from the institution of the war between the seeds to the consummation of the Kingdom of God.

It is my opinion that the best way to distinguish Christianity from all worldly systems of thought is to accurately understand their arguments, see them for what they actually are, and then subject them to Biblical critique, distinguishing their truths from their error, rather than illegitimately defining them by non-essential aspects which appear to match the views of those we want to critique. I believe Shenvi and Sawyer wholly agree with this perspective.

(Necessary note to the reader: As this is, unfortunately, a charged subject, I must say up front that nothing that follows in this post is an endorsement of the ideas presented. I intend to subject them to critique in a following article; I am here only seeking to accurately, though briefly, explicate. Further, I pray that neither Shenvi or Sawyer interpret this as an attack on their work. I mean it when I say they are greatly appreciated.)


To begin with, it is a mistake to see Karl Marx’s system as primarily (if at all) moral philosophy, a set of desired goals, or a prescription for justice. It is, at bottom, a Hegelian project of description and explanation. Marx is attempting to explain the whole breadth of human history, its teleology, and eschatology. Just as Hegel described all human history in terms of dialectical forces driving mankind toward the discovery of Spirit/Mind, ending humanity’s material alienation from the same, so Marx describes all human history in terms of a material dialectic, ending with man realizing his gods, ideologies, etc., are simply products of his alienation from his own material self—the only real being.

In Marx’s system, the basic, existential, human question (endeavor, nature, or the like) is the means of his own material existence. There will be no religion or philosophizing if man does not eat (to put it crudely). Thus, all other human endeavors and ideologies of necessity flow from this. Marx argues from history that the means/materials of production—i.e., the tools, materials, labor, etc.—determine the mode of production, i.e., the organization of labor and productive methods, like slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, etc. Further, and most importantly, the “ideology” or “superstructure” of social existence is both born of and reinforces the superstructure. Thus, religion, philosophy, science, mathematics, and art all exist as necessary products of the mode and organization of production in one’s given place in history. As the materials of production change, the modes change, and the ideological superstructure changes as a result.

Each new epoch of history results from dialectical forces inherent in the mode of production which in turn lead to conflict and change, man steadily moving toward the realization and ultimate destruction of his own self-alienation. Marx appears to locate his own epoch in the story as the penultimate step in his eschatological process. The mode of production, Capitalism, though able to produce vast amounts of goods, has its own inherent dialectic wherein the minority bourgeoisie extract “surplus labor” from the majority proletariat, ultimately leaving the latter impoverished, dehumanized, and alienated from his own life (his labor).

Religion, philosophy, art, science, are all necessary by-products of this system, in the historical form that they are found, as both products and reinforcements of the system, and contributing to its preservation. But the inherent dialectic—man alienated from his own material existence by the mode of production and its superstructure—is, as always, tenuous and ultimately leads to its own destruction; in this case, the self-consciousness of the proletariat, inevitably resulting in the overthrow of the system and advancement into the eschatological community.

In short, Marxism was not a system that developed philosophy around the idea of demarcating society into “oppressor” and “oppressed,” arguing that the former is bad and the latter good, and then working out the system from there. Rather, the existing Enlightenment narrative of oppressor/oppressed is located within the critique of the current mode of production, Capitalism. Oppressor/oppressed is not a multi-applicable concept for Marx; it is the specific economic relationship between the capitalist and the worker, inherent in the current mode of production, which itself is simply the necessary result of the current materials/means of production.

Last, Marx builds no moral system around this specific critique of production. It is an active debate among Marxist scholars whether he even had or advanced a concept of justice at all! Justice, many argue from Marx, is part of the superstructure and is only meaningful within a system where retribution is necessary as a result of the materials and mode of production. Further, it is this precise point of Marx’s system that has almost universally been rejected, or at least superseded by his Critical offspring.

Frankfurt and the Critical Theory

The Institute for Social Research (ISR), later dubbed the Frankfurt School, was originally formed as a Marxist think tank intended to craft multi-disciplinary revolutionary strategies for the various workers parties. But by the time Max Horkheimer assembled the core group that would become the intellectual heart of the newly coined “Critical Theory,” the ISR had already abandoned many of Marx’s theses. With the rise of Fascism in Germany and the descent of the Bolshevism into bloody totalitarianism, the teleological and eschatological predictions of Marx’s deterministic historical materialism were largely abandoned by Frankfurt scholars. “Late Capitalism” led to the rise of the Right rather than proletarian revolution, and proletarian revolution shortly betrayed its own theory by its enslaving practice. As early IRS philosopher Georg Lukács acknowledged as early as 1923, this would not mean the end of Marx’s critical project:

Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious “orthodox” Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation…. Orthodox Marxism does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the “belief” in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a “sacred” book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. (History and Class Consciousness, “What is Orthodox Marxism?”)

Given these historical circumstances, along with the publication of Marx’s Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts, the Frankfurt School of the late 30’s turned the whole of their efforts toward the emancipation of the individual and the elimination of his unnecessary suffering. According to Horkheimer, Critical Theory was to be

…an essential element in the historical effort to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of men. However extensive the interaction between the critical theory and the special sciences whose progress the theory must respect and on which it has for decades exercised a liberating and stimulating influence, the theory never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such. Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery. (Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 246)

Further, like Marx’s program, “[t]he aim of [Critical Theory] is not simply to eliminate one or other abuse, for it regards such abuses as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized” (“The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research“); that is, it was to be comprehensive, laying bare the contradictions found in every aspect society—the “ensemble of social relations” (Marx) that together enslave men and women, destroy their individuality, and alienate them from their own personhood.

As Lukács indicated above, this was not seen as an abandonment of the Marxist program, but rather a reapplication—a more invigorated, honest, and historically consistent application—of the inherited Critical Method. Below, we will briefly cover several defining themes that both anchor Critical Theory in its dialectical roots, yet also distinguish the Frankfurt School from its traditional Marxian Communist competitors.

Historical Dialectic

Marx’s historical dialectic was thoroughly materialist and scientifically deterministic. Each next epoch in the history of humankind was necessitated by the contradictions that preceded. Teleology was grounded in the nature of the materials of production themselves, which in turn dictated the mode of production, in turn dictating the ensemble of social relations or Superstructure. As Communist theorists sought to realize this, the calculus proved untenable and the means all too ideological; but the ends were only extended—full human emancipation.

Antonio Gramsci introduced the concept of “hegemony” to Western Communists, the idea that social control was not so much maintained through specific policy, nor even economic institutions, but by the very character of the dominant culture. The best way, he theorized, to counter hegemony was through ground level multi-disciplinary social action, rather than top down policy changes. Critical Theorists took up this specific charge, but rejected Marx’s deterministic materialism as well as Hegel’s deterministic idealism. Critical Theorists believed that hegemony—in fact, power itself—is a historical rather than material fact, a fact of man’s own making, which could have been otherwise and can still be changed. The “object” of Critical Theory, according to Horkheimer, is “human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Between Philosophy and Social Science, p. 21, as quoted in SEP). Thus great interest was taken in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Friedrich Schiller’s aesthetic analysis; the human individual internally repressed and social projected, along with his artistic ability to feel beyond and long toward freedom.

Alienation and Autonomy

Alienation is the chief enemy of both Hegel’s dialectic of the World Spirit seeking to be realized in human history, Marx’s dialectic of man seeking to be materially realized in his ideological history, and Frankfurt’s dialectic of individuals overcoming the misery inducing contradictions of his own constructed social relations. Alienation for Marx was the Capitalist’s separation of the worker from his labor—which labor was understood to be his own material life—and his individual freedom to employ his being and particular attributes toward his own ends. Alienation for Critical Theorists is quite similar, but much more encompassing. Man is alienated from himself through all his social relations as well as his psychic repressions. Given the structure of society, man does not find himself a free autonomous individual, but rather a cog in the machine—a worker, a commodity, a piece in a policy puzzle, an individual who exists only for the totality, wherein he is given value and meaning. Auschwitz was the ultimate symbol of alienation for Frankfurt authors, a crystallized reality wherein each man, woman, and child bore a number, a Star of David, and a hellish existence ending with flames, all supposedly for the better functioning of the totality.

As such, the emancipation sought by Critical Theorists is not emancipation from this or that oppression, but rather the achievement of real autonomy, in the Kantian sense, the ability to make free decisions with one’s own rational ends in mind, rather than decisions extracted by a universe of false conditions imposed by dominant cultural, economic, political, and historically constructed social realities.


Just as alienation is the chief enemy, autonomy the chief goal, so reification is the chief culprit identified by Critical Theory. To “reify,” in this context, means to put the social, economic, artistic, and political relations of individual humans for the individuals themselves. It is the turning of subjects of relations into its objects, and its objects into subjects. Georg Lukács, who popularized the term as a social concept, explained reification as the fruit of Capitalist society’s fetish for commodification. Rather than Capitalism being a product of free subjects forming economic relationships, Capitalism, as per Marx’s Historical Materialism, turns man himself into an economic commodity in the formation of Bourgeois capital. He quotes Marx in his “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses … It is only a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.(History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”)

Theodore W. Adorno extended the concept a bit further, though working from the same essential paradigm, arguing that the Capitalist society transforms the whole into an “exchange society” wherein the “principle of exchange” governs and mediates all relationships, incorporating every social object including man himself, transforming his subjectivity into objective gears in the engine of economic exchange. All that has “value” in the Capitalist society has, by definition, an exchange rate, is marketable, and is just like any other commodity; this includes individuals. And thus, man, who is properly “subject,” becomes alienated from himself, improperly as “object,” through the assumption of the Commodity Form.

The Commodity Form

Karl Marx wrote of the “fetishism of commodities,” not so much because everyone wanted them, but because Capitalist society tends to define everything in terms of its “equity” or “inequity” on the market of exchange. In such a society, nothing is seen for its individuality or its inherent meaning for the individual, but rather is understood—and therefore used—as an economic good. Frankfurt scholars employed the term “commodity form” with much the same meaning, but with the intention to capture a wider range of commodified objects. For Adorno and Horkheimer in particular, ideas, works of art, religious expressions, and just about anything you can imagine, were subject to commodification by the Culture Industry. What’s more, this “form” itself becomes a metric for legal, political, and social reasoning and the very mis-definition of “equity” in Enlightenment thinking.

The Culture Industry

This is another phrase coined by Horkheimer and Adorno. This concept harkens back to Gramsci’s view of hegemony, exercised not so much through specific governmental policy or economic institutions, but through cultural expressions and cultural objects. The image is that of a factory which produces easily consumable, tasty, empty-calorie cultural products which pacify the masses and dull their critical spirit. The mass-production of culture creates a homogenized populace, easily manipulated, and focused on the least important aspects of human existence at the expense of, e.g., freedom and enduring happiness.

Walter Benjamin gives the example of mass reproduction of a beautiful painting—which for Banjamin means one that causes critical reflection, longing for a better world, and, ultimately, social activism. That which originally invoked the critical spirit of its viewer now becomes no more than hotel art and uncontemplated decor. In fact, all art in the Late Capitalist society (especially according to Adorno) is just another trite formulaic Hollywood movie. And this is not just true of art, but of non-fiction, historical treatises, political discourse, religious symbols, etc. Altogether, the Culture Industry perpetuates the Commodity Form, Reifying the individual, alienating him from himself as proper subject, and ultimately propelling him through a history of collective misery, suffering, and social subjugation.

Instrumental Reason

Humanity thus alienated and reified finds itself locked in an “ontology of false conditions” (Adorno); that is, the appearance of freedom in a world of historically packaged objects of choice, the furniture of the “real world,” which are actually individuated forms of a subjugating system of social constructions furthering man’s alienation. “Reason,” as practiced by the individual in the Totally Administered Society, is wholly “instrumental,” just as is man himself. The universe of objects of choice and contemplation available to nominally free men are in fact products of a system defined by Capitalist commoditization, technocratic scientism, and entrenched bureaucracy. Thus, reason itself is not a reach for the good, the true, the beautiful, and the emancipating, but rather is constrained calculus toward socially constructed ends.

In turn, the world of objects, including subjects commodified as objects, become means to ends defined by the dominant culture and attendant bureaucracy. And to be clear, this is not only true of so-called Late Capitalism, but also of both Fascist and Communist totalitarianism—the former supposedly characterized by scientific positivism and the latter by materialist Idealism. Along with slavery and feudalism, each of these systems is merely the historical expression of the dialectic, estranging its human participates from his own aims and internal longings. Even when man sets out to reason toward the good, his reason is unconsciously instrumental and is folded into the technical apparatus of the world of commodities.

The Totally Administered Society

All of what has been described above constitutes the trend toward the Totally Administered Society. Western culture, according to Herbert Marcuse, is rapidly moving toward such a state as the sublimation of human desire finds itself objectified in the political and social world around him, all reinforced by the trappings of the exchange society discussed above. Man becomes “a thing among things” as his home-life, religion, aesthetic expression, and political ideals are integrated into the totality through reification, commodification, and Freudian projection. Such a society intrumentalizes reason, dictates the universe of choices, and produces an existential anxiety of “false needs,” largely packaged and delivered by the Culture Industry. The Totally Administered Society leaves humanity feeling he is on the road of progress, enjoying the fruits of his free labor, and benefiting from the technological achievements of his age; in truth, however, he is the unwitting fuel of the engine of historical unreality which subjugates every man, even those at the top who believe they are the masters of this system.

The Negative Dialectic

Given the entrenched and often invisible forces which shape society and have fostered its misery, suffering, and slavery throughout human history, the role of Critical Theory is to question everything, including individual items and instantiations of this totality. A piece of art, a bit of narrative, a political debate, all carry within themselves a larger narrative of the historical dialectic. Every artifact of civilization, as well as the whole of its systems and ideologies, are to be subjected to the Critical Method of inquiry. Horkheimer said of the project,

Although it itself emerges from the social structure, its purpose is not, either in its conscious intention, or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any element in the structure. On the contrary, it is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order, and refuses to take them as nonscientific presuppositions about which one can do nothing (Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 206).

As such, the remedy is negation, not new constructions and system building. Contrary to the determinist dialectical motion of history envisioned by Hegel and Marx, the individual alone can begin to overcome alienation and reification through critical negation of the totally administered society. It rejects the naïve acceptance of philosophical, scientific, or technological descriptions of human reality as well as its proposed systems and solutions. Again, “the critical theory of society…has for its objective men as producers of their own historical way of life in its totality,” rather than the cheap, stultifying, and ultimately enslaving products of the socio-cultural machine (Critical Theory: Selected Essays, p. 244).


Utopia loomed large throughout Frankfurt scholarship, though in differing forms. This is not surprising, given its presence in nearly every historical system. Utopia for Hegel was a market economy of free exchange, coupled with a powerful state bureaucracy embodying the Reason of the World Spirit. Utopia for Marx was a society of free individuals determining their own productive activities, employing their own skills and creativity as proper subjects of social relations, rather than objects. After subjecting not only Capitalist society, but even Hegel and Marx to their critical negation, Critical theorists found the ideal of utopia in much more abstract terms. The most concrete of the bunch, Marcuse looked for a “new sensibility” wherein mankind was free to seek true love, freedom, autonomy, etc., including the realization that economic barriers like scarcity are just socially imposed myths. (In the meantime, Marcuse would settle for the “Great Refusal,” viz., a refusal to sign on to any political party or mass social movement.) Benjamin ultimately saw utopia as the individual enjoyments of self-conscious individual humans; the little things, we might say. Horkheimer saw the “Other,” the negation of all that is here and now, as the ultimate image of utopian contemplation. Adorno seems to have followed Benjamin, seeking happiness in one’s own small world of enjoyments, still possible only by negation.

Nevertheless, all believed that a sense of Utopia existed in the human consciousness, and that every individual, even if he could not articulate it, had the seeds of “something different from this” driving him headlong into his social contradictions. The Critical Theory saw that aesthetic enjoyment, friends and family, critical contemplation—the simple things, if received in light of the negation of its commodity form, could lead men and women to see their historical, emancipating possibilities.

Conclusion of Part 1

In our next post, I hope to consider the legacy of Critical Theory in its current form (including Habermas). Though many within the core of the Frankfurt School ultimately abandoned Marxism altogether, and still others turned its critical engines against the New Left and Communist revolutionaries, the most important insights of Marx and Frankfurt have lived on and are employed not only by Critical Race Theorists (and the like), but also by modern Conservatives, Libertarians, and even Conservative Evangelical critics of “Social Justice.” Finally, we will then discuss what is wrong with Critical Theory, from a Biblical perspective, and how many Biblical Justice narratives are therefore unwisely critiqued as “Cultural Marxism” or “Critical Theory.”

Click to Continue to Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 2: What Makes “Critical Theory” Critical Theory?