Voices on the right often object to Critical Race Theory as communist, but the true Communists object to it as much as the right does. Everyone including the right would benefit from understanding this debate as we try to figure out what sort of history to teach our children.
Why CRT Sounds Like Communism
CRT sounds communist to people on the right because the arguments sound similar in teaching that history is a story about the oppression of one group by another, and their solutions often sound similar as well. However, CRT differs sharply from true Communism in that it shifts its analysis of history from economic class to race. This mode of analysis is the ‘critique’ that gives rise to name ‘Critical Theory.’ The various kinds of critical theory, of which CRT is only one, all take this basic mode of analysis from Marxism — which is why they sound similar to those listening from the outside of the dispute — but then shift the criterion for analysis from economic class conflict to something else. There is a feminist version that critiques society in terms of conflicts between the sexes, for example.
The World Socialist Web Site is a long-lived Communist publication in the West, and it has compiled a large collection of historians who are rejecting the 1619 Project. The historians sometimes object that 1619 is just bad history, in that it does not always even try to get the facts correct. Indeed the project’s founder agrees that it does not, explaining that the project was less about doing history than about a kind of activism: “I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not a history. It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and, therefore, the national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is the past.” She went on that her project “never pretended to be a history.”
Historiography and How Marxism Differs from CRT
But the Marxists have a deeper objection, which goes beyond her failure to try to get the facts right. They also object to the way in which she, and others in CRT, interpret the facts.
Historians in training receive education in “historiography,” which is formally the methodology for doing history. In fact, is a debate about what the business of history is. One school says that the business of history is facts, not truth. By this they mean that historians should be working to establish exactly what really did happen, and leave off the question of just why it happened. George Washington definitely crossed the Delaware; there he killed a lot of Hessian mercenaries. He did this as part of a war that resulted in the departure of the American colonies from British control, and the establishment of a new nation. Those are all empirically verifiable facts, and on this school of thought a history would just say that. It would not try to interpret how deep Washington’s commitment to an ideal of freedom was, or just why the Hessians had joined the British side, or whether the result of the war was a good or a bad thing.
On this school you might write “Jefferson wrote a letter on the 16th of June 1781 that said such-and-so,” but not, “Jefferson intended such-and-so, as proven by his letter on the 16th of June 1781.” You can’t know the truth of Jefferson’s heart, so what he really intended is hidden forever. All you can really say, as a historian, is that he wrote such-and-so down and sent it in a letter. Maybe he was being deceptive; maybe he had a secret purpose. Whatever the truth, the fact is that he wrote the letter and it says such-and-so.
Other schools of thought think that you can find larger truths behind the facts, and that history should be about truth. Now, 1619 fails as a history here (if it had intended to be a history, which it claims it never did) because you still have to get the facts right. You can only do the interpretation of the facts once you are sure about the facts.
Once you get the facts right, though, you then have to apply a mode of interpreting those facts. This is where the conflict lies between Marxism and the various kinds of Critical Theory. One of the schools of historiography is that you should go beyond the facts and try to tell the truth of them — and this school is generally Marxist, because they have an interpretive tool they think will let them see the deeper truths behind the facts. This involves analysis of the facts in terms of the basic economic conflict between the people who control the means of production, and those forced to work upon the means of production.
According to Marx, this explains pretty much everything about every society in all of human history. Feudal societies had landlords who monopolized weapons and training in order to control the serfs; they had churches mostly to convince the serfs of their duty to work the land, and the nobility of their duty to maintain order. In the shift to industrial society, suddenly those who owned the means of production now owned machines more than land. They needed workers with enough education to work those machines, and they only needed them when they needed them. Thus, society changed away from ‘lords owning slaves/serfs’ to ‘factory owners free to hire and fire workers at will.’ The workers got a poor public education to give them enough knowledge to be useful, but not enough to be dangerous.
The Marxist school thus rejects CRT, not just the 1619 project. They do so because they object to the shift in interpretation from economic class to race. That’s bad history, they say, because the racism — which was real enough, and empirically verifiable — was just another means of control exercised by the powerful on the weak. If you want to tell the true story, you have to go deeper than race. Shifting the focus to race ends up hiding the real conflicts in society.
The Marxists Have a Stronger Criticism than the CRT Advocates
An example of the difference would be in telling the story of the Jim Crow laws in the South. Those laws definitely existed — that’s verifiable fact. It is also true that the racism itself ended up dividing the poor whites from the poor blacks. In fact those two groups often had nearly exactly the same problems. If they’d been able to think of themselves as allies and friends, rather than enemies who had to be mutually suspicious at all times, they’d have been able to challenge the power structure. Instead, the racism encouraged by the powerful people who wrote the Jim Crow laws ended up being a tool of the powerful — just another means of control. The Klan kept the blacks repressed through fear and violence, but it also taught the whites who joined it to fear the blacks so much they would enact violence. It stoked division and prevented a common front against the wealthy and powerful (who often hid at the very top of the Klan).
Indeed, the World Socialist recently published an argument that the Central Intelligence Agency’s embrace of ‘woke’ (i.e. critical theory) recruiting makes a lot of sense because the CIA has always used racial, ethnic, and religious distinctions as a tool to break up populations they’d like to control. (It should be noted that the USSR also used these techniques, which they called “active measures.”) As the American right wakes up to the threat posed to traditional American self-governance by its own security systems, these Marxist criticisms of organizations like the CIA and FBI hold a new interest.
The Marxists are actually on much stronger ground in this debate between themselves and CRT. There hasn’t actually been a lot of progress on economics, and there’s been significant backsliding since the 1970s or so. But there has been on race, and CRT ends up obscuring that by baking racism into its analysis. In 1865 there were racist militias like the Klan regularly murdering people over racism. In the 1920s the Klan had four million members eventually including at least one Senator. By the 1980s, though, the Klan was already complaining that it had shrunk to a tiny fraction of itself, and could no longer recruit easily among the general population. Today they barely exist — perhaps 3,000 people in a nation of 330,000,000. Americans talk about “white supremacy” quite a lot, but now mostly in terms of things like academic admissions programs, historic housing development issues, and so forth. These turn out to be chiefly economic issues, just as the Marxists claim.
SSG’s View of the Way Forward
That said, the Marxists are not in our view correct. My own critique of critical theory in general (and not just CRT in particular) also applies to Marxism. Any mode of historical analysis that attempts one of these critiques ends up baking its problem into its answers. Thus, if you practice CRT, of course you always find racism wherever you look — the whole project was to look for ways to explain things in terms of racial conflict. If you practice Marxist analysis, of course everything ends up being explicable in terms of economic conflict; the whole project of the analysis was to find a way to explain it that way.
The real issue with historical analysis on these models, to me, is that you can’t actually solve the problems they’re raising using them. These modes of analysis have to be transcended before you can fix things. As long as you continue to analyze in this way, you’ll always find the same problems no matter how much progress has been made.
If we want to fix the economic issues, we should work to transcend the mode of analysis that breaks us into hostile racial groups. It is our position that Americans should pull together to help Americans per se — a position the Marxists reject too, because they aim to build an international society based on international revolution against capitalism. That is where we differ from them, rejecting both sub-national politics and the idea that all of humanity should be embraced under one overarching global order. Our view is that Americans should see each other as brothers, and try to pull together for our common good.
In terms of the history, these debates between schools of thoughts are useful but only belong in college and grad school where there is time to understand fully what the different positions are. In primary and secondary school, history should stick to the verifiable facts. There is not time in high school history class to understand the debate about what the facts mean, but there is value in the debate for those who devote the additional years to study.